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Literacy Coaches Explore Their Work Through Vignettes

What does a literacy coach do? How does the coach’s work manifest itself in schools and classrooms? Do a literacy coach’s efforts actually result in improvement in student achievement? And how does a literacy coach’s support create change in a large urban school district serving over 800,000 students and 35,000 teachers?

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), twelve teacher-consultant literacy coaches tackled these questions in a weekend writing retreat that allowed them to reflect on their experiences and deepen their understanding of what their work means.

The participants were part of a partnership between the UCLA Writing Project and Local District 3, one of eight local districts in LAUSD. For the past six years, UCLA Writing Project Literacy and Leadership Partners—known as literacy coaches—have worked in 27 secondary schools, providing support and leadership in professional development, promoting writing in the classroom, and assisting in school and district initiatives. They have been involved with projects in disciplinary and content literacy, intervention reading programs, small learning communities, and study groups focused on student work.

However, even though each year state test scores showed greater improvement at schools with UCLA Writing Project literacy coaches than with non–writing project coaches, many in the district still wonder what the work of a literacy coach is and how writing project literacy coaches influence student achievement. Thus, in an effort to make the work of its literacy coaches more visible, the UCLA Writing Project, under the direction of Co-director Jane Hancock, organized a weekend writing retreat giving coaches an opportunity to write about their work.

The retreat, funded by an Urban Sites Network minigrant, was designed around a vignette-writing process that one of the facilitators had experienced as a participant in an NWP study of teacher leadership (for more, see the Vignette Study). The facilitators decided to use the vignette process because it draws on the reflection, personal connection, and voice of the writer while capturing an experience for analysis. Over the course of the two-day retreat, participants were asked to choose and write a vignette that told something of their practice as literacy coaches in urban Los Angeles schools, to reflect on that experience with others in the group, and to revise and share their writing.

The Many Roles of a Literacy Coach

By the end of the weekend, all of the participants walked away with the beginnings of a vignette reflecting the essence of their work, a writing group to help them continue the revision process, and a promise to come back together in the thick of the new school year to again share their work and thinking.

Pieces ranged from accounts of specific projects, such as David Lerner’s article about starting a writing academy that published hundreds of student-created books, to discussions of the nature of coaching itself, like Erin Powers’ encapsulation of the role of a coach (PDF), as she describes switching from working as a “builder” (her primary role as a teacher) to entrenching herself in the “frame” of the school as a coach.

The role of a literacy coach in a classroom became a compelling theme for several. Jane Koehler reflects that teachers are often so preoccupied with teaching content that the skills needed to learn the content can become less of a priority, so the literacy coach needs to be a bridge between the two. “The old adage that ‘I taught but they did not learn’ is unacceptable,” Koehler writes. “If ‘they’ did not learn, we, teacher and coach, must ask ourselves why and discover ways to help students learn. What is taught becomes less important than how it is taught. The literacy coach tries to help the teacher navigate this divide.”

Susan Strauss describes how she’s been able to use her own middle school experience to coach teachers, overwhelmed by the paper load, to “focus on the learning process rather than results,” helping them respond to student writing “by noting specific changes…and indicating how to continue on the path of continuous improvement.”

And helping teachers grow as literacy professionals, as Rebecca Alber makes clear, is not a task for the heavy-handed. After a demonstration that Alber gave in one teacher’s classroom on strategies for creating a first draft, the teacher commented “I never thought to write with the students. They kept watching you and seemed motivated by your writing with them.” “I smiled and agreed with her,” says Alber. “I could have replied, ‘Yes, writing with them is important.’ But I didn’t want her to think I am implying that since she has not written before with them, that her writing instruction was somehow lacking or substandard.

“So instead, I shared my experience. I shared how I began writing with students my third year of teaching after attending the South Basin Writing Project in Long Beach. How I remembered both the vulnerability of writing in a fluorescent-lit room with others and also the sheer power of it. How it helped convert my classroom from a place primarily of instruction into a productive writing and reading workshop. Early on as a literacy coach, I found myself again and again reflecting on my own teaching experiences and practices to help connect with teachers.”

Making the “Invisible” Work Visible

The writing retreat was followed by an Authors’ Night. The participants invited to this event anyone who they felt would benefit from hearing their words about their work. Principals, assistant principals, writing project directors, and fellow teachers all attended.

As an end product of the grant, participants investigated possible publishing outlets for their writing as a way of bringing the work to the attention of administrators, politicians, and the general public. And they continued spreading the word about their work by finding superintendents, administrators, school board members, and politicians to send their articles to.

Ultimately, whether their piece ends up as a publication or is received by their local school board members, these coaches benefited from writing about their work. As Rebecca Alber states, “The Urban [Sites Network] Writing Grant gave us not only an opportunity to document our coaching successes but an opportunity to celebrate them collectively as well. Because of this experience, I am better at articulating the role and importance of a literacy coach.”