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Like hosting a meal, instructional coaching requires some planning and organization, not to mention flexibility. Although a prepared coach usually enters a session with certain outcomes in mind, we never know precisely which direction the experience may go. Being able to stay focused and think quickly is vital; and if there are paper plates around, things can get interesting!

Much of the coaching work I do focuses on instructional practice in a Project Based Learning environment. To help build a PBL culture in the classroom, there are times we have to step back and think about the culture of the school as a whole as it relates student-centered teaching and learning. The culture should invite collaboration, risk-taking, and authentic, true, if sometimes messy work. If kids don’t sense that all ideas are welcome and that the road to a public product consists of mutual collaborators, they have not developed PBL culture. A compelling conversation about culture came up recently while coaching teachers at Innovation Tech High School.

During our time together, I had the opportunity to facilitate thinking around the relationships that exist at their school as they continue to build their PBL culture. The conversation was about the norms that the school had developed to frame their days, but teachers had not thought about how living the norms can help shape the culture. They had not dug into what accepted and maintained norms look like and sound like.

Furthermore, there existed some confusion around the relationship between PBL working agreements and cultural norms. I knew that this necessitated a discussion to help teachers gain clarification before entering into the next stage of development with students. I joined a few of the facilitators in the teachers’ room, or “bullpen” as it is called, and then the magic happened!

Having left my notebook in another room, I saw a stack of paper plates on the table and grabbed three. On the first, I wrote, “Here’s What!” On the second, I scribbled, “So What?” Finally, on the third, I jotted “Now What?” 

Use of Norms Clarified
With the teachers looking on, I wrote the word “NORMS” on the first plate. Moving the plate to center of our table, I stated, “You have norms, So What?” As I pointed to the second plate, the teachers began to talk. Yes, they had norms, but realized that what they didn’t have was clarity around them. So I jotted “clarity” on the 2nd plate. We talked about that, and as the teachers pondered and discussed how they might facilitate the students in an activity that would lead to clarity, I jotted their thoughts on the third, the “Now What” plate—these became their action steps. And so went our coaching conversation. The plates served as organizers for some heavy thoughts around school culture, while also supporting an interactive conversation.

One teacher noted that because the norms existed only inside classrooms, they presented as rules, “owned” by the teacher. Perhaps this was why the norms held little meaning or power for the students. Ideas about how they might move the norms from the classroom into the school environment were listed on the third plate, such as “What if the teachers facilitated the students as they unpack the norms during advisory sessions?”

Further brainstorming resulted in the formation of a small network of kids and teachers who will engage in instructional rounds at our other New Tech School, 7 Valleys in the next couple of weeks. I will facilitate this team as they collect data around culture to inform their own problem of practice. Perhaps this will help move the norms from poster to practice! 

The session continued until the plates were filled, ideas were shared, and next steps were planned. As a coach, I liked the movement and coordination of thinking that the plates offered. The teachers seemed to enjoy the safe, if unconventional opportunity for community thoughts and ideas to be parceled and passed. As the “host”, I appreciated the opportunity to set the table with hopes for the future as it relates to the culture at Innovation Tech High School. After the session, the teachers shared how “Here’s What-So What-Now What” helped them capture and organize their thinking as they continue to support their learning community.

I left that day thinking about how a simple strategy can result in extraordinary thinking. All we need is a little time and a few leftover paper plates.

Randi Downs is an OCM-BOCES PBL Trainer and Instructional Coach. Reach her on Twitter @randidowns45


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