What an honor it is to be invited into a classroom. I’m always reminded that it is a privilege. When teachers invite me to observe an English learner in their learning environment, I know they are counting on an honest and kind coaching approach. My input matters, but they are the experts on that child’s academic life.
Teachers and administrators often expect that as an EL instructional coach, I’ll be able to provide answers to their burning questions after spending hours observing a child. But it’s important to remember that classroom teachers are always our first resource for clarity and answers.
As a coach, providing all the answers is not one of the values I stand on. I provide guidance through attentive observations, listening with grace, inquiry, crafting action plans, and reflecting on our learning.
The Art of Observing
We are kid watchers. We are teachers who interact with students and who monitor class activities in order to understand more about teaching and learning, mostly learning.
There’s so much to understand about a child. The only way to start is by watching first. What am I looking for when I observe an English learner in a classroom? Here are a few possibilities:
- How engaged is the child during the minilessons?
- How engaged is the child with independent work?
- How engaged is the child while reading an independent book choice?
Often teachers confuse silence with disengagement, especially when it comes to an English learner. Going through a silent period (when an EL is not producing any language yet but has a vocabulary of about 300 receptive words) is a stage all English learners go through. Some of them stay in this stage for three weeks, whereas others can remain silent for six months.
But amidst the silence, I’m looking for signs of engagement. The child might not be able to produce any English language yet but loves reading a graphic novel. The child might be completely silent but eagerly writing in a first language. A child might be silent, but if the child is engaged, then I know learning is happening.
Other questions I might ask myself while observing:
- Does this child know where to look for help around the classroom? Can he locate the resources around the room (such as charts from previous lessons, ABC charts, books read before, or any other tool created together)?
- How does she choose books for independent reading? What are some of the strategies he is using? What is he showing me he understands about how reading works?
- How is this child’s writing life? How does he approach a new page? What skills is he using? What is he showing me he understands? Where might be some confusion? Does this child have tools he can access independently when he needs help?
When I say I’m looking for tools that the child can access independently, I mean bookmarks, charts, pages, notes that document either the learning or how something is done. The important thing about these tools is that they foster independence in our students and give them a blueprint of the work or learning that has already happened.
When I’m going into a classroom to observe someone I don’t know very well, what exactly am I listening for? When working with English learners, of course, I’m very curious about their language competency. I’m listening for signs of the following:
- fluency in English
- questions she might ask
- language the child uses to explain or tell (Is she using the correct words or term to describe something? Is she using social language or academic language?)
- conversations with peers (Are they related to content? Are they about other topics?)
What I love about listening to learn and understand is that we really don’t control any part of this process. We need to stay open to many possibilities and be in awe, as well as surprised and curious ourselves. During this stage, I’m also writing what the child and teacher are saying. This kind of evidence provides me with concrete examples in our conversation later on.
From Observation to Questions
After spending a good amount of time observing, listening, and recording language being used in the classroom, my mind is filled with questions. At this point, I invite teachers to enter inquiry mode with me. I’m ready to ask questions. At times, teachers are surprised at how many questions I ask.
I walk the teacher through my process of inquiry. Here’s an example of what that might look like and the possibilities for exploration:
|What I heard the child say||What I saw the child doing||What could these observations possibly mean?|
|“I don’t know how to do this.”
“Ugh. I forgot.”
|Sat at the table for a long time without asking for help||Did she really “forget” how to do something or is this her self-defense mechanism to save face?
How does she usually solve problems?
Does she tend to wait for help?
Once this work of observing, leaning in to listen to the child, and asking questions to guide our thinking is completed, the teacher and I will be ready to craft action plans and set up goals for this child. But to get to this point of the work, we must first spend a good amount of time sharpening our observation skills and asking some deep questions.
The classroom teacher is a key player in this process. This is why observations are opportunities for partnerships and collaborations and the classroom teacher is my biggest resource for inspiration and clarity.