Prioritizing Self-Care

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When someone asks you how things are going, how often do you answer that you’re busy? Unfortunately, I probably say this in passing much too often. Talking “with others about how much we work” happens since ‘busyness’ can be seen as a status symbol – an indicator of how important we are – even though being a workaholic is clearly not healthy. When I mention that I’m busy, I’m not trying to prove my value or how successful I am. Regardless, I find it quite sobering to think that talking about how busy we are is “harming how we communicate, connect, and interact” with others. This is certainly the opposite of what instructional coaches and teacher leaders are aiming for. I can see how even a casual comment about being busy might prevent me from connecting, empathizing or listening to others.

At the moment, I am home in Canada unexpectedly on bereavement leave. As my husband, two sons and I process our loss and spend time with family, I have had some time to reflect on whether I am prioritizing what is most important. In other words, what is keeping me “busy”? While I am confident that my husband and I do well at prioritizing our sons and our family, neither of us has consistently prioritized our wellness in the last few years. We both tend to let our own self-care and wellness slide when things get busy. I should know better; I know that an educator – or parent! – “who prioritizes downtime, relaxation and self-care discovers an increase in overall well-being and in multiple dimensions of performance.

Here are some actions that educators can take to practice self-care:

  • set clear boundaries on work hours
  • “prioritize ruthlessly” (this term really resonates with me!)
  • eat healthy (I usually plan and prep meals on weekends)
  • drink enough water
  • exercise regularly (for me, this is yoga, walking and strength-training)
  • meditate
  • spend quality time with family and friends (I need to ensure that how I spend my time with family and friends does not conflict with my desire to eat healthy and be active)
  • get enough sleep (I need to avoid work and other distractions so that I can get to bed earlier)

Use often & freely!

How can we ensure that we stick to new self-care habits? I know that I will need to schedule in time for self-care each week. When I get back to work next week, I am going to commit to at least two acts of self-care daily. I am also going to schedule in more frequent regular reflections on my purpose and mission as a teacher leader, as Elena Aguilar recommends in Ways to Cultivate Your Emotional Resilience This Year, and also in her book The Art of Coaching. This will allow me to ensure that I can “prioritize ruthlessly” what matters most.

Self-care is a priority and necessity – not a luxury – in the work that we do.

Author Unknown


NGSS UbD Unit Planning Cycle for PLCs (Collaborative Teams)

As an Instructional Coach primarily supporting MS and HS science teachers, I have spent a lot of time in the past year thinking about the process for designing NGSS units that are based upon the UbD framework, and which also connect with the PLC work of collaborative teams. Fortunately, I have been able to trial and refine this process as I work with collaborative teams. This has allowed me to improve and more clearly articulate the process each time I have worked with a team to help them plan a unit.

Recently, a colleague shared a book called Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice. Although this book has been around since 2008, reading through a few of its chapters was a lightbulb moment for me. It became very clear that I needed to make the process of planning and implementing an NGSS unit simpler and more VISIBLE to teachers in order to allow us to build shared understanding. The timing of my colleague sharing this book with me was perfect – it was a few days before I was scheduled to facilitate two different collaborative team planning days. I took the graphic from Assessment-Centered Teaching that outlines a unit design cycle, modified it slightly, and incorporated essential aspects of NGSS. I posted this graphic up on the wall during the planning days to help explain the overall unit design cycle, as well as which steps we were focusing on that day. Here is my first draft of this NGSS + UbD + PLC cycle for a unit:


It was so helpful to have this process visible to all of us; it served as a reminder to stay focused on where we were in the process at specific times during the day. We started with UbD Phase 1: Identifying Desired Results (PLC Q#1 – What do we want our students to learn?), then focused on thinking through UbD Phase 2: The Assessment Plan (PLC Q#2 – How will we know if they’ve learned it?) Of course, UbD Phase 3: The Learning Plan (instruction) often comes up naturally during both of these conversations, but it is helpful to focus on identifying desired results, as well as think through assessment before getting too specific about instruction.

To help make sense of my thinking and to better guide teams, I’ve drafted an NGSS Conceptual Flow Protocol for Step 1 of the unit design cycle above. This will lead to the creation of what Paul Andersen refers to as an ‘anchor chart’ (sample photo below) to help determine the storyline for the unit. (I am certain I will continue to refine it over time.) Protocols for Steps 2 & 3 (NGSS specific) coming soon!


Protocol for Developing the Conceptual Flow3 (Anchor Chart4) for an NGSS Unit

UbD® Phase 1: Identify Desired Results

PLC Question #1 – What do we want our students to learn?2

Prior to this Protocol:

  • bundle the NGSS performance expectations (PEs)
  • individually brainstorm main concepts and vocabulary related to the topic that will be considered
  • read over relevant evidence statements

Materials Needed:

  • collaborative team (2 or more teachers)
  • orange and green sticky notes, pens, large whiteboard or poster paper
  • planning cards (PEs, SEPs and CCCs)
  • evidence statements
  1. As a team, write what students should know (concepts/DCIs) on orange sticky notes. Begin to organize the sticky notes on a large whiteboard or poster paper.
  2. Are there 1-3 ideas that, if students could really understand them deeply, would help them explain other ideas in this unit?5
  3. Also consider the following questions:
    • Are there any concepts that are not aligned to the PEs? If so, are they essential for student conceptual understanding?3
    • How might the concepts be connected to one another? 5
    • How might the concepts be nested and linked to help build student understanding?3
    • To what extent is the sequence of concepts developmentally appropriate? 3
    • To what extent does the sequence of concepts anticipate alternative conceptions students might have as part of their prior knowledge? 3
  4. How do students need to THINK about the concepts? Use green sticky notes to incorporate the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) into the anchor chart.
  5. What might the conceptual storyline be for this unit? (A storyline means “the coherence is from the students’ perspective, not just the teacher’s.”6)
  6. What anchor phenomenon (anchoring event5) might drive the unit? Consider writing a driving question to go with the anchor phenomenon/event.5
  7. What supporting phenomena might drive individual lessons?
  8. What Essential Questions, Enduring Understandings, transdisciplinary transfer goals (TTGs) and disciplinary transfer goals (DTGs) might be appropriate for this unit?
  9. Start to write a draft description of the unit that incorporates the phenomena and storyline. This will help to guide you in UbD® Phase 2: Assessment Plan (PLC Question #2 – How will we know if students learned it?)


Protocol based on work from:

  • 1 Understanding by Design (UbD®) Framework by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins
  • 2 Marzano, Robert J. Collaborative Teams That Transform Schools: The Next Step in PLCs. Marzano Research, 2016.
  • 3 DiRanna, Kathryn. Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice. London, 2008.
  • 4 Andersen, Paul. “Anchor Charts” The Wonder of Science, 20. Oct. 2018,
  • 5 Windschitl, Mark, et al. Ambitious Science Teaching. Harvard Education Press, 2018.
  • 6 “What are storylines?” Next Generation Storylines, 20 Oct. 2018,

True Collaboration = Incredible Professional Learning

I am so very grateful to work at a school that values collaboration. Currently, I am part of a collaborative team of five instructional coaches. Prior to this, I was incredibly fortunate to have been a teacher in the Innovation Institute program at Shanghai American School. (Check out this video of Innovation Institute.)

At present, I am still involved as the Innovation Institute Coordinator, but I do miss the challenge of collaborating to create meaningful, engaging interdisciplinary projects. I was thrilled recently that some of my Innovation Institute colleagues created a game to represent the program from the teacher’s perspective. It is an excellent portrayal of the highs and lows of working in a collaborative team in which your success is truly dependent on your colleagues. This kind of interdependence is quite often challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. The unique experience of helping to develop this program, as well as teaching and coordinating within the program, has been some of the best professional learning in my career. Without a doubt, it has made me a much better educator.

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Innovation Game Instructions

Innovation Game Board

For more information about the Innovation Institute program, check out the excerpt we wrote for The PBL Playbook by A.J. Juliani:

The Innovation Institute program originated from a series of conversations between high school faculty and administration. Several teachers were inspired by their previous educational and professional experiences. After numerous discussions (at least one of which was based upon Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel), James Linzel and Tom Musk spoke with their high school principal at the time, Sascha Heckmann. They were inspired to help develop a program driven by phenomena or issues-based perspectives. These conversations began to include more teachers as they gained momentum and became more structured as they focused on subject integration and overlap. Eventually, the program was approved, school administration secured financial support, and professional learning and time for teachers to collaboratively to develop the program was provided.

Conversations around meaningful outcomes and pedagogical philosophies, as well as developing deeper understandings of each other’s content areas, were important steps in creating the Innovation Institute program and specific interdisciplinary projects, recalls Patrice Parks.  She explains that it took about six months to address both philosophical and practical aspects of the program. Understanding collectively what project or problem-based learning was going to look like in our particular context—a private, college prep school in Asia—was essential to creating a program that honored our responsibility to our students, to parents’ expectations of an SAS education, and to our belief in what education can and should achieve.

Tom explains that teachers found it to be an incredibly challenging process to get the program started, and it felt high-stakes at the time because the school invested so much money into infrastructure. He feels that this program would not have survived, and ultimately thrived, without administrative support and teachers willing to support and inspire one another. In addition, Patrice says that pioneering students who were willing to take a leap of faith in a tradition-bound educational environment were also instrumental.

Another challenge, according to Patrice, is that [it] is deeply difficult to de-program/wean (for lack of a better term) students from the traditional classroom educational paradigm, but it can be done. The fact that this is a two-year program is essential to its success because it takes real time and effort to shift students’ horizons of expectations around their learning experiences.  The first year (grade 9) lays down the fundamentals in skills and content for the disciplines, as well as the 5 C’s (Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Compassion). The second year (grade 10) enables students to continue the journey and takes them to the next level of conceptual understanding and a better grasp of the 5 C’s.

Ultimately, all of the conversations, planning days and professional development led to the creation of a two-year, interdisciplinary, PBL program where students are expected to attempt to answer four to six ‘driving questions’ per year using their learning from Design, English, History, and Science. James explains that these questions are focused on contemporary challenges such as: ‘How to endure justly on a finite world?’, ‘What is the biggest catalyst for change in China?’ or ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ David Gran points out that in the Institute, content is not emphasized over skills. Instead, students start with real world applications and meaningful integrations and work backwards from there.

Amy [Foley] further explains that the driving questions (DQs) are always open-ended and can be answered in a variety of ways. In addition, student teams must draw upon their knowledge from all four disciplines to fully address the DQ. Depending on the project, students are involved in foundational learning prior to, or just after, the project launch. This foundational learning often involves students attending separate classes for each discipline as they would in a more traditional program. However, teachers co-plan in advance to ensure that what is being taught connects to the other classes and is also setting students up to be able to later further their understanding in order to answer the DQ.

After each project launch, the teachers’ role is to facilitate the process each team goes through to incubate their potential answers for the DQ. Team contracts are written, and teams are given time to ideate (brainstorm). Patrice says that while it can be difficult, teams must be given time to pursue less than stellar ideas far enough that they either realize on their own that their idea is going nowhere or is not deep enough to adequately answer the question. At times, student teams need to be redirected by a teacher facilitator. This can be tricky as there is usually only 6-7 weeks allocated for each project. When designs/products/research have to be cast aside, both students and teachers begin to feel the pressure. Timing for teacher intervention is important—and delicate.

In fact, helping students to collaborate effectively is one of the main challenges throughout the program. Students need help learning what collaboration looks like and feels like. To go beyond cooperative work to true collaboration, honesty and vulnerability is required. Patrice further explains that PBL can go the way of polite divisions of labor that prevent inspiration, depth, or innovation – or can perhaps lead to one responsible and driven student doing most, if not all, of the work. One way to avoid this is for teachers to model true collaboration. Patrice and other Institute teachers often share some of their challenges in becoming a truly collaborative team. The teachers also often hold meetings in spaces where students can observe teachers’ processes and how they negotiate conflict and honor each other. Teachers ensure that students know how to reach out for help when [they] need a mediator to help the team get back on track. Institute teachers also model hypothetical situations and frequently conference with student teams.

An exciting element of collaboration for students is the big reveal of teams during a project launch. Teachers may solicit input from students when forming teams for a new project, but ultimately teachers finalize teams that they feel are balanced and best accommodate students’ needs. However, it is a puzzle trying to ensure all teams will be successful. One interdisciplinary project requires grade 10 students to design and build a board game to answer the question ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ Tom recalls that during this project, there was a team that teachers were concerned about. The students were solid individually, but there was uncertainty about how they would work together, as well as whether any would step up as a leader. As the ideation process unfolded, the team really struggled to find a unifying idea to answer the driving question. However, in the final few weeks of the project – when other teams were iterating their final product based upon the expert feedback from a game consultant – one student made a joke about creating a game about competitive sushi chefs who compete to destroy each other. After further discussion and brainstorming, the group decided it was actually a good idea that would allow them to answer the DQ. Ultimately, the team produced an exemplary game that truly impressed parents and visitors during the Family Game Night showcase. Tom points out that this is a great example that team strength is not simply assembling strong individuals – it is about groups collaborating effectively. As an end note to this story, for the final project of the two-year program (eight months later), student managers were given the freedom to assemble their own teams. Perhaps not surprisingly, these four students chose to be a team again because they knew they could persevere and work well together. They ended up producing another fantastic project.

Another key element of the program is incorporating experts or members of the community. Tiffany Kelley explains that Institute teachers want to empower students to see the world as their classroom, and the meaningful connections students make with experts, authentic audiences and even places visited outside of school during PBL, contributes deeply to their engagement in the learning process and ultimately to their final products. It can be challenging to secure experts, so at times teachers have asked parents, other faculty, or members of the communications department to act as experts or audiences. Tiffany has observed that sometimes these experts are giving the same message as the Institute teachers, but having another voice say something in a different way to the students can have a profound effect.

Authentic products or audiences are also a focus for the Innovation Institute. Grade 10 students complete a film project to answer the driving question ‘Do we live in a Brave New World?” Both years that students submitted films to the Shanghai Student Film Festival, teams won awards. David explains that the significance of this is that Institute students were competing against more experienced film students, while this was the first film the Institute students had produced. Innovation Institute students most likely created impressive films because they were exceptionally skilled at working together as a collaborative team in their undertaking of creative tasks.  The technical skill of film can be challenging, but effective collaboration is crucial for most fledgling film crews.

Finally, time must be made for reflection. Student teams need to be guided through a reflection of how well their team worked together, and students need to individually reflect on how they could better support their team in the future. Student feedback can also be useful to help teachers refine projects and PBL structures. Institute teachers often seek student feedback before launching a newly-designed project. Running a protocol with a small group of students gives them input into the project and helps teachers to improve the project prior to an official launch. Amy recommends that teacher teams set aside time – both during and after a project – to regularly reflect and document necessary improvements. Teacher reflection helps to improve the program. For example, David recognizes that Institute teachers have learned over time to more effectively incorporate individual accountability through specific roles, teacher check-ins and student peer reviews both during and at the end of projects.

It is really important for teachers to remember that taking risks or implementing something innovative is sometimes overwhelming, says Amy. There are many obstacles along the way. However, focus on positives such as students who are benefitting from the program. The following quote is from a student who spoke about their experience after they had completed the two-year Innovation Institute program.

In Inno, every major project we had was a ride of its own. No ride was the same as any others, because of different group mates, different objectives, and different end products. After finishing each project, there’s a feeling that “Hey, I did this!” that I can sort of get when I do well on something like a test, but not really. That’s because my group and I had made something tangible, like a coffee table book or a film or board game. I feel satisfied knowing all the work that goes into something like that. Sure, it feels good when you ace a test, but that’s just me feeling great about my grades. These projects make a person feel good about themselves.

This is the sort of feedback that shows teachers they are on the right track and, like our students, need to keep persevering. Despite the natural ups and downs of implementing an innovative program, Patrice articulates what other Institute teachers feel – that this has been the hardest yet most satisfying work of our teaching careers and we are forever grateful for this opportunity.

If you are interested in project-based learning, I encourage you to read The PBL Playbook for some inspiration!

pbl playbook

Navigating Difficult Conversations

“… communication is at the heart of everything educators do. Our schools are only as good as the conversations within them.”

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Coaching is an Art, not a Science

As I look ahead to my second year as an instructional coach, I am excited to continue practicing coaching conversations. At times – while reading books, online articles, connecting with other coaches on Twitter, learning with and from my colleagues – I have felt overwhelmed about the ‘right’ way to coach. On many occasions, I have been reminded that coaching – like teaching – is an art, not a science. I am also reminded that coaching conversations (and effective communication in general) can be very simple. As mentioned in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (2016), instructional coaching does not have to be overcomplicated, overly theoretical or overthought. I also really appreciate Kathy Perret’s recent blog post The KEYS to Coaching Conversations which also recommends that coaches keep things simple. I am looking forward to using these resources, as well as re-reading Elena Aguilar’s books The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013) and The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities That Transform Schools (2016) to remind myself of what I learned at her workshop, as I continue to discover and refine my own personal coaching style during coaching conversations.

the coaching habit the art of coaching the art of coaching teams.jpeg

Difficult Conversations

While I want to continue to practice and reflect on my coaching conversations so that I can improve, I have also spent much time this summer thinking about how to navigate difficult conversations in a broader sense. During my first year as an instructional coach (within a newly-adopted coaching model), I found myself involved in – and sometimes facilitating – many difficult conversations. Perhaps surprisingly, these difficult conversations were rarely with the teachers I am responsible for coaching; my experiences with difficult conversations during my first year were not often related to one-on-one coaching. More often, the difficult conversations I found myself in happened when collaborating with peers, other colleagues or administrators.

“Crucial Conversations” need to be “Better Conversations”

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2012), Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler define “crucial conversations” as those that involve opposing opinions, high stakes and strong emotions. Sometimes the difficult conversations I participated in left me inspired, uplifted and in awe of what a team can accomplish together. However, there were times when I should have spoken up during a difficult conversation, but I remained quiet. There were times when I felt frustrated, dismissed or undervalued. There were times I saw others silenced, or noticed tension, and did not know how to shift the dynamic. Perhaps there were times others were uncomfortable or frustrated, but I was unaware. The perspective of my new role helped me realize that for much of my career I was probably able to avoid many crucial conversations, or perhaps I sometimes reacted with silence by withdrawing or avoiding when conversations become difficult. Crucial Conversations explains that when people feel unsafe, they become either silent (masking, avoiding, or withdrawing) or violent (controlling, labeling or attacking). In my current role, moving to silence is not an option, since “better conversations” are needed to ensure trust building and strong relationships. In his book Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected (2015), Jim Knight says “one of the most important and powerful ways we can improve our schools is to improve the way we interact with each other.”

crucial conversations.jpg better conversations.jpeg

Constructive Conflict

During the past year I learned about many aspects of Adaptive Schools through colleagues who have previously been trained. (I am very much looking forward to receiving this training at my school in the upcoming year!) Not surprisingly, I have noticed many similarities between The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative GroupsCrucial Conversations and Better Conversations as I reflected on my own “communication beliefs and habits” (Knight, 2016). Crucial Conversations refers to the importance of building shared understanding, ensuring everyone feels safe enough to put ideas on the table, and the need for clear decision making processes. Adaptive Schools uses the terms “constructive conflict”, “ways of talking” (dialogue vs discussion) and “The Seven Norms of Collaboration” (toolkit linked here).

the adaptive school

Areas of Growth

In addition to continuing to focus on the work of Adaptive Schools, my summer reading has given me some new areas of focus to help me improve my ability to navigate difficult conversations without ‘overcomplicating things’.

Crucial Conversations explains that mutual purpose is an “entrance condition” and mutual respect is a “continuance condition” in order for constructive, healthy conversations to occur. The book also recommends simply asking yourself the following questions during – or in preparation for – difficult conversations:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Knight outlines the following Better Conversations Beliefs that also seem simple but necessary:

  1. I see conversations partners as equals.
  2. I want to hear what others have to say.
  3. I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  4. I don’t judge others.
  5. Conversation should be back and forth.
  6. Conversation should be life-giving.

The four questions from Crucial Conversations and Knight’s beliefs about communication are helpful for both one-on-one coaching conversations, and difficult conversations in general. To be an effective communicator, one must be aware not only of the content of the conversation, but also have an awareness of others AND self-awareness. It is not always easy to manage everything going on in a conversation, but I know I will more confidently and effectively navigate difficult conversations with practice and reflection. The following advice from Better Conversations also resonated with me as areas in which I want to focus in order to improve my communication habits:

  • “see each conversation as a learning opportunity, not a telling opportunity”
  • “seek first to understand, then be understood” (from Covey’s 7 habits of Highly Effective People)
  • avoid formulating a response before the speaker is finished
  • when it comes to questioning, “technique … is not as important as the mindset you bring”
  • do not be too busy with tasks to connect with others – be fully present and be persistent in connecting with others

Instead of looking back at missed opportunities or mistakes made in previous difficult conversations, I find myself excited and hopeful that I am better prepared for future “crucial conversations”. Elena Aquilar’s blog post Managing Conflict in School Leadership Teams reassures me that I have made some good decisions in the past by naming conflict, reflecting on when it is appropriate to address conflict, and referring teams back to their norms.

Empathy, Trust and Relationships

I ended the school year with a reflection to remind myself that coaching is all about empathy, trust and relationships. After much reflection and learning about how to best navigate difficult conversations, it seems I have circled back to the same realization. By asking myself the four questions from Crucial Conversations and by reflecting on my beliefs and practicing habits of communication as outlined in Better Conversations, I have found manageable strategies to empathize with others and build trusting relationships that will allow me to more effectively handle difficult conversations. I am looking forward to another year of growth in my instructional coaching role!

In schools, better conversations can dramatically improve educator and student learning. When teachers are clearer, ask better questions, and foster dialogue, their students learn more.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Better conversations also stand at the heart of professional learning in schools. Instructional coaches who learn to be better at listening, questioning, building emotional connections, and fostering dialogue become more effective.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2016)

My Favorite NGSS Resources

One of my colleagues at Shanghai American School inspired me to gather all of the NGSS resources I have used and love in one easy to navigate padlet (see below).

I had a list of sites available internally for the teachers I support, but it was not visually appealing or easy to navigate. Hopefully this padlet is an improvement!

What are YOUR favorite resources for NGSS implementation? What resources am I missing?


Made with Padlet


Reflections on my 1st Year of Instructional Coaching

A New Role

This time last year, I was nervously excited after accepting a 6-12 science instructional coach position. It was not an easy decision to step away from my role as a biology teacher in an interdisciplinary PBL program; I had been wonderfully challenged more than ever before in my 16 year teaching career as I worked collaboratively with other Innovation Institute teachers to develop and implement the program, and to design interdisciplinary projects. However, instructional coaching seemed like a great opportunity to grow professionally by further developing interpersonal and leadership skills that I had been using as a collaborative team member, PLC facilitator, and Innovation Institute Program Coordinator. The focus on coaching science teachers was also a perfect fit, as I have been so inspired by recent shifts in education required by CCSS and NGSS.

The Importance of Relationships, Trust and Growth Mindset

I was certainly nervous about being hired as an instructional coach with no prior experience (particularly since the coaching model was also new!), but I also felt that the most important aspect of being a good instructional coach was to focus on building relationships and nurturing trust. I also knew that my focus on encouraging a growth mindset in students would also benefit me in my work with teachers. I have learned so much this year reading dozens of books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, attending the NSTA conference in Atlanta and the Marzano Lab in Denver, working with teachers, and collaborating with the rest of the K-12 coaching team at Shanghai American School. I am much more aware of my strengths – and also very aware of how much more I want to learn! However, I still feel very strongly that relationships, trust, and a growth mindset are the most important aspects of both successful coaching and building effective collaborative teams. I am also even more aware that it takes patience and time to build relationships and trust, as well as encourage growth mindsets.

A New Coaching Model

When I started as an instructional coach at the beginning of this school year, instructional coaches had only existed at our school for two years. This year, our school shifted from having three instructional coaches in the MS and only one instructional coach in the HS to having a team of five subject-specific coaches working across both divisions. In this context, I knew that I would have to be patient while teachers, coaches, and administrators worked to build a shared understanding of the roles that coaches can play and the benefits coaches can bring to individual teachers and collaborative teams in our shared desire to improve student learning. Since instructional coaching is still so new at our school, it was really important for me to reinforce repeatedly that:

  • coaches do not evaluate teachers
  • coaches work with ALL teachers
  • coaches do not need to have all of the answers in order to help facilitate professional learning for individual teachers or teams

How to Build Relationships?

A blog post from Insight Education Group emphasizes that instructional coaching programs are more likely to “yield real improvement in teaching and learning” if they are “grounded in a strong, shared understanding of effective coaching.” Attempting to clarify the role of an instructional coach is one strategy mentioned by @MrsRyder58 in a TeachBoost blog post entitled Strategies for Building Relationships as an Instructional Coach. She also mentions classroom visits as another important strategy, which I hope to do in a more intentional and strategic way next year. I really like Megan’s suggestion to create a newsletter for teachers based upon “lessons in the classroom, teacher collaboration, and resources.” This would help teachers to be more aware of what is happening in the school, provide an opportunity to celebrate successes, and ensure teachers know how coaches can help improve student learning and support professional growth.

The Importance of Empathy

While I understood that it would take time for our new coaching model to be fully implemented, I also had to practice patience with respect to waiting for teachers to ask for support. It is not up to the coach to determine what changes or improvements could be made. Another TeachBoost post by @ShastaLooper entitled Bringing Empathy to Coaching reminds me that it is not only patience that is needed, but also empathy. As a new instructional coach, I have been learning the importance of the following aspects of empathy suggested by @ShastaLooper:

  • setting aside assumptions,
  • helping teachers to recognize their own strengths and areas in which they want to grow, and
  • listening to understand and question.

Areas of Growth

Listening to understand is one area in which I still need more practice and reflection, as there have been many times this year when I acted as a consultant or collaborator in order to help build understanding about pedagogy, instruction or assessment – particularly with respect to the shifts required by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). While these roles are appropriate at times, I am very aware that much of the power lies in wearing the coaching ‘hat’. As I think ahead to my second year in this role, I am looking forward to creating and taking advantage of opportunities to coach ‘heavy’ much more often than I am coaching ‘light’ (Are You Coaching Heavy or Light? by Joellen Killion, Learning Forward).

Building a Culture of Collaborative Inquiry & Reflective Practice

I am beyond inspired that our K-12 instructional coaching team has been empowered by the leaders at our school to take our commitment to teachers and collaborative teams to the next level by working to build a culture of collaborative inquiry and reflective practice. While I am definitely looking forward to a restful summer and lots of quality time with my family and friends, I am already feeling optimistic and excited about my second year as an instructional coach. I am beyond grateful for this amazing learning opportunity.


I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

I reflect and I learn.

– Carmen Freisen
(Costa & Garmston, 2012)


UbD+NGSS+5E Unit Planning

Have you struggled to find the right process for designing an NGSS Unit? It can feel overwhelming, especially if you are new to NGSS! There are new factors to consider when shifting to three-dimensional instruction and assessment.

Having worked as a science instructional coach this year (first time coach AND in a newly-created role), I have been primarily helping collaborative teams deepen their understanding of the NGSS performance expectations. Another focus has been how to implement the practices and what they look like at MS and HS. (I had some great discussions with teachers about the similarities and differences between constructing explanations and arguing from evidence. If you are interested in this, check out this Stanford Graduate School video & STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 1.) We have also had many discussions about how to incorporate crosscutting concepts into instruction and assessment.

Recently, several of my MS and HS science collaborative teams are naturally in a place where they are looking to design or refine NGSS units. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop on Understanding by Design (UbD) at my school earlier this year. This was the perfect refresher for me (and so nice to have it run by Jay McTighe himself!) Ever since that weekend, I have been trying to make sense of how to effectively articulate UbD to teachers who may be only vaguely familiar with the idea, while simultaneously ensuring that important aspects of NGSS are not forgotten. I was fortunate to also attend the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta, where I participated in several sessions related to NGSS unit design. While all of the sessions I attended were great, I knew that I needed to keep the NGSS unit planning process simple and manageable. Ultimately, I tried to take away what all of the processes had in common.

I’ve shared my take-aways about the crucial steps in designing units recently with most of the collaborative teams I work with. The process seems to bring clarity and focus to what needs to be considered when refining or designing NGSS units. The steps below are based upon elements from the following: Translating the NGSS for Classroom Instruction, Seeing Students Learn Science: Integrating Assessment and Instruction in the Classroom, the 5E Model for NGSS, Paul Andersen’s ‘unit planning protocol’, Quest-LC and, of course, Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. I have also connect the stages of Unit Design with the 4 questions of PLC at Work, since collaborative teams have been a focus at our school for several years now.

In the steps below, note that DCI = disciplinary core idea (content), SEP = science & engineering practice and CCC = crosscutting concept. Each performance expectation (PE) is essentially a standard made up of a DCI + SEP + CCC. Also, keep in mind that prior to designing or refining a unit, there should be at least a tentative year-long sequence mapped out for the course. It is also helpful if there have already been discussions about how the PEs will be bundled into units.

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results  [“unpacking”; What do we want students to learn?]

  • What do students need to KNOW? (DCIs)
  • Create an ANCHOR CHART of main concepts (DCIs).
    • You might be tempted to skip this step, but don’t! Just as the NGSS emphasizes the importance of modeling, you and your colleagues will also benefit from making your thinking visible and building a clear and shared understanding of what concepts should be included in the unit. The anchor chart suggested by @paulandersen will also help determine what order the concepts could be taught in, and perhaps which concepts are most important. For examples of anchor charts, go to The Wonder of Science site. Click on Teaching, select a topic and then click on a specific performance expectation to see anchor charts that other teachers have made.
  • Create a conceptual storyline using the DCIs.
    • A conceptual storyline means that the concepts are taught in an order or flow that makes sense to students. It allows the teacher or collaborative team to later create a coherent sequence of lessons.
  • What do students need to be able to DO? (SEPs)
    • If you have bundled PEs together, is there one practice that will be focused on more than the others? Will some practices be taught but not assessed?
    • For this step and the next, it helps to have printable practice and concept cards from Paul Andersen’s site. I suggest the ‘4 per page file’ so that the cards are small, manageable and easy to take to meetings!
  • How will students THINK about the concepts? (CCCs)
    • At this point, if you have not already naturally incorporated CCCs into your anchor chart, you may choose to do so now.
  • What ANCHOR PHENOMENON could drive the unit?

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence [formative and summative assessment; How will we know if students learned it?]

  • What ‘END PRODUCT’ will students produce to demonstrate competency in the primary SEP?
    • It is crucial that one or more PRACTICES drive the assessment.
  • What MAJOR CONCEPT(s) from the “conceptual storyline” will be included in the ‘end product’?
  • What CCC(s) from the “conceptual storyline” will be included in the ‘end product’?
  • Is the assessment ‘three dimensional’ enough?

Stage 3: Learning Plan [“learning performances”; How will we design learning experiences for ALL learners?]

  • What 3D ‘learning performances’ will provide the required evidence of student learning?
    • Focus not on what the teacher is doing, but what the STUDENTS are doing.

Stage 4: Reflection (& Revision?)

This is not an official UbD stage, but I think it is crucial to make time to reflect on the unit. It can be helpful to jot down notes throughout the unit of things that worked well, as well as things you would like to change. At the end of the unit, a reflection with your collaborative team is very helpful. This could also be a time when revisions to the unit and/or assessments are made so that they are ready for the next year. This ensures that revisions are not forgotten.


NGSS UbD 5Es Template

The template below is adapted from Jay McTighe’s UbD template to incorporate some elements of NGSS and the 5E model.

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How do YOU plan NGSS units? Is your process different? Feel free to post a comment below or connect with me on twitter @foley_amy 🙂

Social Contracts

Are you a teacher who has wondered about the best way to create a classroom environment in which students felt safe to take risks in their learning?  Have you struggled with discipline issues? Have you wished that students could help to monitor each others’ behavior? Many teachers develop class rules at the beginning of the school year, but in my experience even when rules are co-created with students, they are not always effective. There may be too many rules for students to remember, or students might have multiple teachers who have different expectations. So what is a teacher to do? One solution is to develop a “social contract” for a specific group of students who work together frequently.

My introduction to the idea of a “social contract” came from a previous colleague (instructional coach) who was helping Innovation Institute teachers understand how to help students build healthy relationships with each other and encourage a trusting, empathetic environment in which students could more effectively collaborate. The social contract comes from the Flippen Group, which at the time had resources for the social contract online. However, this work now seems to be encompassed in their Capturing Kids’ Hearts professional training offerings (which look amazing). The social contract encourages students to manage their own (and each others’) behaviors by providing a shared understanding and clear structure for what is – and what is not – acceptable.

The social contract should be developed with a group that has newly formed, although it helps if the group has has had some time to get to know each other prior to creating the contract. How it works:

  • Seat students in small groups of 3-5. Students can be assigned roles such as time keeper, scribe, spokesperson, etc.
  • Introduce the idea of a “social contract”, and ask students why it might be helpful to have one.
  • Have students individually answer these questions on paper:
    1. How do you want to be treated by the teacher?
    2. How do you want to be treated by each other?
    3. How do you think the teacher wants to be treated?
    4. How will we handle violations of the contract?
  • After students have had individual ‘think time’, have them share their thoughts in their small groups.
  • Next, ask each question one at a time, and have each group share out to the class.
    • Encourage all ideas to be shared, and record every idea (as single words or short phrases) on a large piece of paper. Ideally, the social contract should be kept posted in the room.
    • If any ideas are repeated, use a check mark to indicate that it was stated more than once.
    • Students should be as specific as possible. For example, ‘respect each other’ is perhaps not specific enough. What do they mean exactly? What does respect look like? sound like?
    • Ask for clarification of any terms and/or ideas that may not be universally agreed upon or understood. However, as much as possible, the ideas shared should be written exactly as the student shared them.
  • Once all ideas are recorded, it is important to agree upon how to hold each other accountable. Students can call ‘foul’ on each other – or a teacher – if someone says or does something that is deemed to go against the social contract.
  • Everyone needs to sign the contract, including the teacher. 
  • When can someone call ‘foul’? Whenever they perceive that someone has said something or acted in a way that goes against the spirit of the social contract – either towards them or another classmate.
  • What happens when someone calls ‘foul’? A foul cannot be questioned or negotiated. If someone has ‘foul’ called on them, they cannot argue it. They must offer two ‘put ups’ to the person they have been deemed to have mistreated. The ‘put ups’ must be something positive about that person’s character – it cannot be about their appearance or anything superficial. Teachers may need to model genuine, quality ‘put ups’.

In my experience, students came to the realization that the answers to all four questions are very similar. Everyone really wants to be treated the same way. Although there will be many ideas recorded in the social contract, it starts to become apparent that everyone should follow the ‘golden rule’ – treat others the way you want to be treated. This is what makes the social contract easier to follow than a list of specific rules. ANY behavior or words that are deemed harmful in some way can be called out as a ‘foul’.

What could cause the social contract to fail?

  • Inconsistency. Teachers need to hold students accountable and encourage students to call foul on both students AND the teacher, if necessary.
  • Sarcasm. Teachers should be willing to be called out for using sarcasm.
  • Students have already been together for a long period of time. My team first implemented the social contract with students in their second year of a program. We were new teachers for these students, but they had already spent an entire school year together and had built a dynamic without us. It felt almost impossible to have students ‘buy in’ to the idea of a social contract.
  • Multiple teachers. All teachers must ‘buy in’ to the social contract. If your students have multiple teachers, ensure that they are involved. Ideally, they are a part of the process, but students could also share and explain with other teachers after it is created. All teachers should sign the contract.


Ideation (Brainstorming)

Do your students need help to effectively brainstorm? Perhaps they default to sharing out ideas in an unstructured, open discussion? If so, they would likely benefit from being explicitly taught some useful strategies for brainstorming (ideation). This will ensure students are aware that there are a variety of ideation strategies that they can choose from, depending on their team needs at a particular time.

Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School relies on ideation as part of the design thinking process for each interdisciplinary project. However, it is not always easy for adults – let alone 9th or 10th graders! – to come up with great ideas as a collaborative team. I’ve been doing some prep work with other instructional coaches at SAS in order to help guide some discussions around choosing specific ideation strategies to be a focus in the Innovation Institute program.

I was thrilled when an Institute colleague shared several great sites with me that she has used on occasion when ideation strategies were needed. The Interaction Design Foundation website, which is very useful, says that ideation is the heart of design thinking. That article, in addition to MindTools and this Wrike article, list numerous ideation strategies. I combined strategies (predominantly from these three sites) to make a useful overview that lists the what, why, when, and how of 17 ideation strategies. I would never share that many strategies with students, but I appreciate having so many strategies in one place in order to make easy decisions about which strategies are most appropriate to teach students at a specific time. The image below is of a document that summarizes some fantastic ideation techniques, predominantly from the sites mentioned above. As an instructional coach, it will also be helpful for me to refer to this overview if I need an ideation strategy for a meeting or workshop that I am facilitating.

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Are there other useful sites for ideation strategies? Are there any great strategies that are missing from this overview that should be included?

How can NGSS practices transform science teaching & learning?

Have you ever heard someone unfamiliar with NGSS ask “Don’t good teachers already know how to teach science well?” Yes… and no. Adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) should lead to a transformation in how students learn science, as outlined in Appendix A of A Framework for K-12 Science Education.  It is crucial that students are applying their knowledge of the disciplinary core ideas through the science and engineering practices. But what exactly does this look like in a science class?

3-dimensional learning means that both the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) and the science & engineering practices (SEPs) are as important as the content – also known as disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). I recently wrote a blog post focusing on incorporating CCCs, but it is equally important to consider how students engage in the SEPs. Teachers may think that science class already naturally incorporates the practices, but that is not necessarily true. We should be asking ourselves whether students are acting like SCIENTISTS. Are students doing what scientists would be doing?

Check out this Teaching Channel video about NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (6min). Traditionally, learning science often involved the teacher acting as a knowledge authority to provide content, then students would be given a lab activity in order to confirm results that they are expecting based on what they already know to be true. The shift with NGSS is that STUDENTS should be the ones DOING science – asking questions, designing and conducting investigations, analyzing data, finding relationships, etc. Students should be given more experiences to think deeply, and have more opportunities to think like a scientist. These NGSS parent guides include a table that outlines what there should be ‘less of’ and ‘more of’ in a science classroom. This is a good starting point for thinking about how science classrooms can be transformed.

What are the NGSS science and engineering practices? They are listed below, and are explained in more detail in Appendix F of A Framework for K-12 Science Education:

  1. Asking Questions (science) and Defining Problems (engineering)
  2. Developing and Using Models
  3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  5. Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  6. Constructing Explanations (science) and Designing Solutions (engineering)
  7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

How can teachers begin to understand what they are already doing well with respect to the SEPs, and where they might improve? The article Assessing Science Practices: Moving Your Class Along a Continuum by Katherine L. McNeill, Rebecca Katsh-Singer and Pam Pelletier is incredibly useful. First, it has a ‘Science Practices Continuum Assessment Tool’ which allows teachers to assess where their students fall for each practice – Not Present, Emergent, Proficient, or Exemplary. This can help teachers to plan instruction that helps students to move along on the continuum. Second, the article also groups the 8 practices into the following categories:

  • Investigating Practices
    • Asking Questions
    • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Sense Making Practices
    • Developing and Using Models
    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
    • Constructing Explanations
  • Critiquing Practices
    • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
    • Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information

This makes it easier to envision how to incorporate the practices when designing a unit. Ideally, a unit should start with introducing students to a phenomenon, so that they begin by asking questions. A few years ago I came across the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. However, at NSTA this year a couple of sessions referred to Questioning for the Next Generation (QNG), which is QFT adapted for NGSS. Love it! Using QNG is a great way to get students to help make sense of a phenomenon and perhaps even having students help to craft a driving question. Near the beginning of the unit, students should often develop a model to explain the phenomenon. Ideally, students’ models will be improved throughout the course of a unit as their understanding deepens through engaging with other practices, such as planning and carrying out investigations and analyzing and interpreting data.

For teachers new to NGSS, what are some simple strategies for incorporating the SEPs in a way that honors the intention of the K-12 Framework and NGSS?

  • Posting medium size posters of the SEPs means teachers can easily refer to them during class. (These are from @paulandersen’s amazing site The Wonder of Science.) It is helpful to post cards for the main CCC and SEP (practice) with the content learning target(s) for the day.This helps students to understand the 3D focus of the lesson. Refer to these both at the beginning and throughout the lesson.
  • Teachers can refer to more than one CCC and/or SEP during a lesson, even if they are not all assessed. In fact, at times it can be difficult to refer to a CCC &/or SEP in isolation. (See link for STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 3 below.)
  • As you plan a lesson or unit, be sure to plan in advance for incorporating at least one practice each lesson. You can find the continuum mentioned above AND instructional strategies for ALL practices on the Instructional Leadership for Science Practices. Very useful!


Here are some other useful resources:

Matrix of Science and Engineering Practices

This translates appendix F from NGSS into teacher friendly language. It breaks down each practice by grade band K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices

The intent of this appendix is to describe what each of these eight practices implies about what students can do. Its purpose is to enable readers to better understand the performance expectations.

Appendix I: Engineering Design in NGSS

STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 3

Practices should not stand alone: How to sequence practices in a cascade to support student investigations