Coaching All Content Areas with a Language Focus

by Adrian Mendoza

After six years of teaching math and science in bilingual classrooms. I was invited to take on the role of instructional math coach in my district (San Marcos). 

As I was on my coaching journey, I received a lot of support from my coworkers and had the privilege of being trained by education leader and coaching expert Jim Knight. With Jim, I learned that as soon as we as teachers stop learning, the students stop learning as well. In San Marcos, we used Jim’s coaching model to facilitate better conversations among educators. During these conversations, I got to know and connect with my teachers better and constantly reflect on instruction with teachers as we worked through coaching cycles.

I already had experience in teaching math, and I understood the rigor of the math standards, but the coaching model helped me finally feel comfortable supporting math teachers by sharing ideas and having conversations about mathematical practices to support our students better. I felt like I had arrived.

Then one day, one of the principals I worked with, Pam Thomas, arrived at a coaches’ meeting with a book called 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom and asked us to support all of her teachers, regardless of content area, in implementing the 7 Steps. While I was confident in coaching math teachers, I felt the opposite with other content areas. I felt that my knowledge of language arts, social studies, music, and other content areas limited my potential to support teachers in those areas. 

Pam Thomas working with students at a community event.

Nonetheless, our coaching team adopted 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom as our coaching model. With the 7 Steps, I realized that I was capable of supporting all teachers—regardless of content area or grade level—with a language focus. We also discussed the level of engagement the 7 Steps would bring to students as they interacted with listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Before we started using the 7 Steps as a coaching tool, all campus teachers received training on the model. (Picture below)

It wasn’t until then that I understood that, as a language coach, I would really be able to support teachers and make a difference for emerging bilingual students and every student in any classroom.

In my work with Seidlitz Education. I have been fortunate to shadow Dr. Stephen Fleenor as he was coaching in Austin ISD using a  Language coaching tool he designed to help structure educators’ conversations around the implementation of the 7 Steps. While there are different approaches to supporting coaching in classrooms, a slightly modified version of Dr. Fleenor’s model has really worked for me in my continuing work supporting teachers of emergent bilinguals.  Following Jim Knight, there are five steps in the process.  

  1. Pre-Coaching Conversations with Coaches & Administrators 

In these conversations, we make sure we understand that the main focus is to coach for language, and in order to do that, we keep three general rules in mind:

  • Our goal is to empower teachers.
  • When there is more than one coach in the classroom we don’t talk to each other or to the teachers, as this might create anxiety.
  • When taking notes, we use provided sentence stems such as, I noticed… and What if…
  1. Classroom Observations

As coaches, we want to identify as many of the facts related to language development in the classroom as we can. Classroom visits can take around 15 minutes and note taking-is important during this time.

Here’s a glimpse of what those observation notes might look like: 

  • Identifying seat arrangement and counting how many students are in the classroom.
  • I noticed… This sentence stem is mostly used to empower teachers and they can be qualitative (E.g., “I noticed that you have your objective posted with visuals”) or quantitative (E.g., “I noticed that 17 of your 22 students were writing in complete sentences”).
  • What if… This sentence stem is used to provide teachers with ideas on how to take their teaching to the next level. (E.g., “What if we add a sentence stem before students talk?” or “What if we connect students’ learning with the objectives that are already posted?”)
  1. Coaching Conversation

During the coaching conversation, our goals are to connect with teachers, empower them, and have them self-reflect on their instruction, and to develop a goal they can implement easily to develop language.

GoalSample Question(s)Reasoning
Connect with teachersWhat is one thing that I need to know about you? Here is when teachers get to talk about their families, their interests, and their experiences.
Self-reflectThinking about language development, how will you rank your lesson between 0 and 10? 
What do you think we can do to take the same lesson to the next number? 
This response guides our coaching goal.
Empower TeachersShare your list of positive observations using the sentence stem, I notice… This will help teachers realize what they are already implementing in their classroom.
Teacher’s Goal Selection Share with the teacher 2-3 of the What if statements you made during observations. (These might be connected to the self-reflection questions.) These will guide the teacher in selecting an easy-to-implement language goal. (This is a good opportunity for you, the coach, to offer any support to meet the goal.)
Example goals:Have students speak in complete sentences with sentence stems.Use a visual tool for students during conversations.Have students use total response signals to provide thinking time. 
  1. Goal Implementation

During goal implementation, ideally we can have teachers go back to the same lesson or a similar lesson as the one we previously observed, this time including a strategy to support the new language goal. 

We take additional notes to reflect on the goal implementation, and the cycle continues. Once the teacher meets this first goal (which may take days, weeks, or months), then it’s time to select a new one.

  1. Debrief with Coaches & Administrators

Regular debriefs with fellow coaches and administrators are a great way to maintain accountability, identify needed supports, and share ideas, challenges, and successes. Here are the general goals of a debriefing session:

  • Identify patterns noted in all classrooms observed. For example, “We noticed that all teachers used sentence stems in their classrooms.”
  • Make sure that coaches know all teacher goals so we can support them.
  • Have every person in the room make a commitment as a follow-up to the coaching done that day.

Regardless of your confidence in a particular content area, the strategies in 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom—combined with this five-step process—can empower coaches to support teachers in building students’ academic language. To sum it up perfectly, one day I heard Valentina Gonzalez ask, “Can we teach content without using language?” The immediate answer was no. Then she asked, “Can we teach language without teaching content?” We responded yes. All the work we do as coaches should reflect the fact that, essentially, we educators are all language teachers who happen to teach content.  

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