Samantha Bennett is the author of That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms That Read, Write, and Think, and works with teachers and literacy leaders across the country to create vibrant school learning communities. In this podcast, she chats with Franki Sibberson about what matters most in schools. A full transcript is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: So how do you determine how best to support a teacher when you’re working with him or her?
Samantha Bennett: Well, I think the first thing when starting to work with a teacher is the same thing as when they start to work with kids, is you wanna figure out where they are and what they need next. So the most important thing is for me to – I’m a big snoop, I’m a big anthropologist, so I have to go into the classroom. I have to see how they set up their space, what pictures they have on their walls, what quotes they have over their desk or on their walls.
And I really have to figure out like, “Okay, what does this teacher care most about, and what are they already really good at?” And kind of then start to figure out, “All right, so where are we gonna go next?”
Franki Sibberson: Can you give us an example of something you notice like when you do that?
Samantha Bennett: Sure. All right, so for example, one of the people I coach is Cris Tovani, and you walk into her classroom, and the first thing you see in huge letters over her board is, “Smart is not something you have; smart is something you get.” So right away I start to think like, “Okay, so she is – she really cares about this idea of kids kind of confidence and like success breeds success, and giving kids entry points and access points.” So those are just inferences I can make from just her having that quote over that board.
The idea that she’s really trying to break the fake, and break down what is school to kids, and help them find their way and find their own entry points so that they all feel, you know, “smart.” Then as I start to look around her classroom, I see, all right, every kid has a journal, and so I might also start to flip through the journal. And I’m looking through, “Okay, what kind of prompts is she giving kids? What does she wanna know about kids? What is she asking them to do? What kind of assignments is she giving them?”
So then I can figure out what she cares most about, so we can build on that. So as I flip through her kids’ notebooks, I notice there are a lot of reflective questions. What did you learn about yourself as a reader today? What was the favorite part of the book you read today? How’d you get smarter with your group today? So I go, “All right, she cares a lot about kids’ self-reflection and how they’re coming to know themselves as learners.”
So then when I sit down to work with her and plan with her, I wanna figure out like, “Okay, so this is how you get to know your kids deeply, and then what’s next?” How do you decide where to go next, so each kid can grow as much as possible over the year that she spends with them?
Franki Sibberson: I love that. Okay, so you’re really good at understanding the common things that make a great classroom and you’re also really good at understanding the uniqueness of each teacher. Can you talk about balance between common practice and teacher personality and style?
Samantha Bennett: Yeah. So I think one of the things that is killing us as a profession is this idea that teaching is kind of a collection of activities or things we ask kids to do. And really what it comes – what I believe it comes down to, at the core, is like number of minutes per day that kids are reading, writing, talking, problem-solving, to get smarter. And unfortunately, way too much emphasis has been put on what the teacher does vs. what the teacher sets up for the kids to do.
So as far as that as a common thread, it does not matter if I’m in a kindergarten classroom or an 11th-grade chemistry classroom – I am literally counting number of minutes that kids are reading, kids are writing, kids are talking, kids are problem-solving, because that’s what’s gonna help them get smarter on a daily basis. So within that, the only thing that’s – I mean it’s hard to break. If a teacher is very used to talking a lot, in order to break that, all I have to do, really, is I script everything that happens during a class period.
So everything that comes out of the teacher’s mouth, everything that comes out of kids’ mouths, and then I have student work to back it up. So I’ll just sit down with the teacher and I’ll say, “Okay, what’d you learn about your kids today? Who surprised you? Who are you wondering about? Who frustrated you today?” And through looking at the work, and so if in my script, all I have is what the teacher was saying because the teacher talked the whole time, there’s no way they know anything about their kids.
And usually I only have to do that once before the conversation shifts about who’s doing the work, and what does that look like? And then how do we get to know kids deeply in order to help them grow? It really doesn’t take very long. So there are very, very, very few teachers that don’t care whether or not kids learn in their rooms. There are a few that are there just to hear themselves pontificate on a topic, but those are few and far between.
Most teachers care deeply about what their kids know, and how to help them grow, and how to help them access power in the world and be better readers and be better writers. And so when they start to realize that I am talking about the most concrete thing – number of minutes – and that is the only way to get smarter. It’s really hard to get smarter if you’re just listening all the time. It’s really hard to get smarter. So that, to me, is that key and that balance.
Franki Sibberson: That makes sense. So where do schools start when they want to make a big change? How do they start the conversation and begin to move forward as a whole school?
Samantha Bennett: Well, I think a conversation that needs to be had at the school-wide level is this idea of why are we here? Why do we get up in the morning? And if the only reason we’re getting up in the morning is so that kids can pass tests, you’re never gonna get smarter as a school, ’cause kids passing a test, for me, is a pretty low bar. If you’re really going after the purpose of education, which, to me, is about this idea of helping each person become a better human being over time – and that counts for adults and for kids.
That, to me, is the hardest, most complex thing to do – to truly – I mean for me, that’s the hope and promise of education, is that we become better human beings. And I think that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I don’t think there’s any one way a better human being looks or acts – I think that’s where the fun comes in, right? There’s a million different ways to become a better human being. But the idea of when a staff sits down and really starts to throw those ideas out: why did you become a teacher in the first place? What is school for?
What do we hope our kids to walk away with when they leave our doors and go out – whether it’s to the next level of education or out into the big, wide world? I think, for me, that’s a huge starting place for schools. I mean as I said before, the thing that’s killing us is this culture of fear, and what if my kids don’t, and what if my kids won’t, and what if they fire us, and what if they close the doors? I mean, here’s the thing: if we close all the doors and fire all the people, right?
So the idea that teachers are trying really hard and working really hard to help their kids learn every day, the fact that they feel like they could be fired at any minute, to me, is just crazy. It’s just crazy. So for principals to go, “Look, I am not looking to fire anybody. I do not want anybody to fear for their jobs. I don’t want anybody to worry that you’re” – I mean I know this is a budget crisis and this is a different conversation.
But this deep-seated fear that even the teachers I’ve seen that like I walk in their rooms, and it’s the most unbelievable, powerful, passionate, beautiful place for kids, and everybody’s learning. Even those teachers, when I start to sit down and talk to them, go, “Well, I can’t because what if, and if somebody walks in, and” – you know. So even the most magnificent classrooms in the country, those teachers still feel scared – they still feel scared, and that, to me, is just crazy.
Franki Sibberson: Right. So you think getting past that is key –
Samantha Bennett: Yeah, for school to change –
Franki Sibberson: For a school?
Samantha Bennett: Yeah, for schools to change, and to really dig into a continuous cycle of learning, where everybody in the building is learning. You know, somebody has got to stand up and go, “All right, nobody’s going anywhere. We’re all gonna dig in this together, and we’re just gonna try to get smarter over time, and that’s all we’re gonna do.” And I know it seems kind of – I mean I don’t know – simplistic, but I truly believe that that is the place to start.
Franki Sibberson: And so maybe you answered this, but what do you say is the biggest challenge that teachers face right now? How do you support teacher change and still recognize the reality of these challenges?
Samantha Bennett: Well, I think the idea that when we are going for the better human being thing, they’re gonna pass the test. And I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not saying it’s across the board. There are a lot of, you know, steps along the way. But if we shoot for the low bar, we usually miss it. If we shoot for a really high bar, we usually kinda hit everything that’s below it, you know, in these kind of different ways. And so I mean your original question was – say that one again.
Franki Sibberson: Biggest challenges teachers face, you know, and how do you recognize that those are real challenges –
Samantha Bennett: Yeah. I think the biggest challenge I face is to help teaches reconnect with the reason they became teachers in the first place – what they love about education, what they love about kids, what they love about teaching. And for them to really stand up and become social activists and say, “You know what, I spend eight hours a day” – if you’re an elementary teacher, or “I spend 90 minutes every other day” – “with these kids. I know them pretty well, and I know what they need.
“And, you know, thank you for your idea and your tip and trick about how I can help them more. And so, yeah, here’s what I believe about that same thing, and so here’s how I’m gonna address that same topic.” I think mandates are crazy. I think goals are what we need. We need more goals and less and fewer mandates, because if you don’t trust a teacher to make a decision about curriculum or about a kid, why are you trusting them to be in front of kids every day?
You know, it just doesn’t make any sense to me that we would hand a teacher a scripted curriculum because we don’t trust what’s gonna come out of their mouth, and we don’t trust that they’re meeting kids’ needs. I think we say, “Here’s what it looks like when you meet kids’ needs.” You know, you have this much growth and you have all these different ways to see that kids are growing. You know, you can never have one way.
We need that, you know, photo album of assessment vs. the snapshot of assessment that, you know, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe talk about so beautifully. So sure, let’s set that bar. Okay, what does a photo album of assessment look like for a kid? How are we gonna get there? How are we gonna show growth over time? Okay, now let me go – let me do that.
Franki Sibberson: So I like that photo album analysis. What are some strategies that you’ve used that have worked when implementing big school-wide changes? Do you have anything specific that you can share?
Samantha Bennett: Yeah, I think the thing – I think one of the things that works the best in implementing school-wide changes is to get the classroom doors open. And for me, the best way to do that is to set up a series of what we call classroom labs, so it’s kinda based on this, you know, using the classroom as laboratory. I think way too often, teacher learning happens away from the classroom, and then teachers are supposed to go into their classroom and just implement it all by themselves.
What the classroom lab situation does is you get a group of educators – anywhere from, well, you know, 10 to 20, probably is the max – and you do a little pre-brief. You start to flesh out like, okay, what do we believe is the purpose of education, and what are some things that research says about what best practice looks like? And then we all go into a classroom together, and we witness the same 60-to-90-minute lesson, and take notes, take really careful notes all along the way.
And then we go back out of the classroom, and we take about, you know, an hour and a half to two hours to debrief what we say. Describe, “Okay, this is what I saw, this is what I heard. This is the inference I’m making about why this matters to student learning.” And then kind of go on to what’s next. So do a pretty formal debrief – I mean and I’m really careful about keeping the classroom teacher safe, but also learning. And really it’s about using the classroom as a text for all of us to get smarter.
Because, you know, we have hundreds of lists of tips and tricks, but until you see how students respond, how they talk to each other, what they write based on different prompts, what you said, how you confer with them one-on-one, it’s just too complex. Everybody’s brain, every single child’s brain works so differently, and even though you can give them the exact same instructions, the exact same, you know, work to do, and then you go to confer with them, and each one’s gonna say something different and have a different “aha” along the way.
So because of those complexities, I feel like the best way for a school to start to dig into this work is to get to know each other’s classroom practice, and get to see each other’s kids, and start to have empathy for how much we try to do in a day. And really try to make it this, you know, connected place in a school, where kids are, you know, experiencing some of the same systems, structures, routines, and rituals; where they’re hearing some common language; where they can tell the adults are talking in the building.
You know when you walk in a building if you’re in a place where the adults are joyful, and where they are communicating, and where they are working together, and where they are, you know, pushing forward and really trying to help kids learn. You can feel it, and the kids can feel it, too. They know.
Franki Sibberson: Okay, so how do you work with teachers and administrators whose beliefs about teaching and learning don’t align exactly with yours as a coach?
Samantha Bennett: Well, here’s the thing – I don’t believe there’s any one right way to do anything. And I don’t believe there are any beliefs that I would necessarily – I mean if there’s a belief that’s totally different. Like if somebody says to me, “Actually, listening is learning,” right? I have actually had a teacher say that to me – that listening is learning. And I say, “Okay, do you believe listening by itself is learning?”
And some people – and then I’ve had a teacher say, “Yes, they need to listen. They need for me to share with them all I know, and then they need to, you know, share back with me what they get.” So the thing with that, though, is it really just takes some kind of show-not-tell to get to the root of that belief. So with that teacher, you know, I may script them. We may talk about, okay, how do you know what students know and are able to do? How can you tell they’re growing over time? Okay, by their tests, great – but what if their test scores don’t show growth?
And what about the kids that are failing, and do you have a responsibility to them, yes or no? I mean there are – few and far between, again, would teachers say, “That’s not my responsibility. If this kid doesn’t dig in, and this kid doesn’t wanna study, and this kid doesn’t wanna do what I’m asking them to do, there’s nothing I can do.” Usually, when people say that, it’s because they’re stuck and they just don’t know how to help. So it’s more about peeling back the layers than it is that people have beliefs that I just can’t work with.
I can pretty much – unless children are suffering. I have been in classrooms where I believe that kids are suffering. So I was in a middle school classroom, and they were – it was a biology classroom, and they were talking about, you know, metabolism. And a kid raised his hand, and he said, “What’s the definition of metabolism, again?” And his teacher goes, “What are you, an idiot? We just talked about that five minutes ago.” So in that classroom, where there’s not even a basic respect, then I had a really hard time coaching that person.
That’s when I would walk into the principal’s room and I’d say, “Hey, you need to get, you know, into John’s room, and you need to, you know, have some conversations. I’m out; I’m done.” So that’s the only time where I feel like I can’t coach an adult. If they don’t have a basic respect and a basic kind of curiosity about children, I can’t help. I can’t help you love kids. I can help you do anything else, but I cannot help you love and care for kids.
Franki Sibberson: And you said that they’re few and far between.
Samantha Bennett: Yeah, and yeah – literally, probably in the past 15 years, I would say that’s maybe 2 adults in 15 years.
Franki Sibberson: So you said your new big thinking is about planning and assessment. Can you talk a little bit about, as a coach, how you support teachers in planning, or do you think you’ve done that?
Samantha Bennett: I think that the biggest thing to support teachers in their planning is they need time. They need a good four to eight-hour chunk to think through nine weeks at a time. I think we kill ourselves as teachers sitting down every day and going, “What am I gonna do tomorrow? What am I gonna do tomorrow?” I mean that’s why 50 percent of teachers quit within their first five years, because planning day to day is just not sustainable.
So if I can get a teacher and get them a sub day or whatever, and I can sit down for four to eight hours and really think through, okay, what are the big ideas we’re going after? What is the discrete pieces of skills and knowledge within that topic that we wanna go for? What will it look like if kids get it? And then really just brainstorm out what those kind of assessments and checkpoints along the way look like. We have big conversations about like motivation and engagement; what do learners need to stay engaged over a sustained study?
You know, I mean so mostly what teachers need is just time to think it through. It’s in there, but when we never slow down to do that is when we get on the, you know, the hamster wheel, and we just never get off. And it’s just too much, and it’s too big, and it’s too overwhelming. And then we just get new things thrown at us all the time, and then we try to integrate it on the fly, and it’s just nuts. It’s just nuts. So I think the thing that is essential is just to sit and have a stack of books in the center of the table on whatever topic, and access to the internet, and a library, and just go for it.
And just a good four to eight hours can get you nine weeks, a nine-week plan that you feel so good about. So then on a daily basis, you can really attend to kids and what’s going on in their heads, vs. trying to plan activities and think about what you’re gonna do. You can really shift that focus and think about, all right, what are the kids gonna do tomorrow, and then how am I gonna help them do it better, do it smarter, do it more flexibly, do it more fluidly, over time?
Franki Sibberson: To get to that big goal – that makes sense. So what about assessment – what’s your current thinking about how assessment fits into that?
Samantha Bennett: Well, I think the thing about assessment that’s really important is to really define it, and to really talk with teachers about what do the pieces look like along the way? On a daily basis, how do you learn the maximum amount you can about each kid? Now, that’s a different conversation with elementary teachers that have 24 contacts, vs., you know, a high school English teacher that may have up to 150, 170 contacts a day, right?
So just starting to flesh that out, of what does it look like when kids are getting smarter over time? What are those concrete pieces of evidence that we have? You know, what are the exit tickets? What are the graphic organizers? What are the essays? What are the, you know, short responses? What are the – I mean just as concrete as that, that’s gonna show over time how kids are integrating knowledge, practicing skills, to kinda get to those bigger understandings. So that, to me, to really flesh those out, and then to write really specific targets.
You know, all the work on learning targets right now that’s, you know, being written about everywhere, and really beautifully in this last issue of Ed Leadership. Just about when we know where we’re going, we can get there. And so the use of learning targets – and not just for us. This isn’t the old goal and objective up on the board, but it’s the idea of how do kids know where they’re going? How do kids know what you expect them to know, what you expect them to be able to do, and what it concretely looks like at the end?
So that they can tell you, “You know what, I need another mini-lesson on word choice, ’cause man, this essay is really dry.” You know, I actually heard a second-grader say that to his teacher. They were writing literary nonfiction books, and he came up, and he says, “Katie, can you do another mini-lesson on juicy words, ’cause I just don’t think my idea’s coming across,” you know. And I’m like, okay, if a second-grader can ask for the mini-lesson he needs, like, come on, because it’s so clear, you know, what he’s going for, and what would make a great literary nonfiction book.
So that, to me, is where the bulk of my work with teachers is that idea of how do we share assessment with students, so it’s not us judging them and stamping them, but it’s that idea of so we let them in on the process. “Okay, I want you to be smarter about blank by, you know, this time, so what will that look like? What will it look like along the way, and what will it look like at the end, and how are you gonna help me? How are we gonna know when we get it?”
Franki Sibberson: Help teachers to figure that out, too, with the big planning.
Samantha Bennett: Yeah, so the big planning, yeah, and the writing of learning targets, and the actual use of learning targets with kids, so that they are so clear on why you’re asking them to do what you’re asking them to do. And then they end up asking you, “Here’s what I need to be able to get to that point.”
Franki Sibberson: I love it. And so one last question: how do you, when you’re coaching, how do you help teachers balance classroom assessments with the high-stakes assessments that are mandated? What’s the balance there?
Samantha Bennett: Well, the piece is it starts to give you the energy to teach when you start to see kids growing over time. Here’s the thing: you should not be surprised about what your kids get on state assessments, because you know them so deeply, and you’ve seen their growth over time. You know exactly how they’re gonna perform before they even take the test. You know, I think this idea that we’re all nervous and what’s gonna happen is, you know, is crazy. We know exactly how they’re gonna do, you know?
And we need – those tests are a specific genre. We need to also slow down and teach them as a genre, you know, two weeks before the test, which, you know, so many people have written about. Here’s the thing: nothing I’m saying is new. Nothing I’m saying is revolutionary. It’s the idea of the courage and will to actually do it; to just focus and slow down, and do what we know matters most, vs. trying to, you know, keep ten plates in the air. It’s silly. It’s just silly. So the thing is I have to help teachers get back to that core of why they became teachers in the first place.
And I’ve never, ever, ever heard a human being say the reason they became a teacher was to help a kid pass a state assessment. No one’s ever said that, right? I mean that’s the thing – they have to believe in themselves first. They have to get back to the root. They have to hear from their administrator that they’re not gonna be fired for taking some risks, and for slowing down and being more intentional with curriculum, you know? And then it’s like, “Okay, let’s go for it. The sky’s the limit now.”
If I can get past those two hurdles with teachers, they are willing to play, and they are ready to go. And they’re psyched, because it’s giving them the energy to teach. It gets them back to, “Oh, yeah – this is why I joined this profession. This is why I wanted to spend my days in schools with children. This is why.” And you know, and all the other crusts and all the other walls, everything else just melts away, because we’re going after really what matters most.