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Celebrating a Decade of Literacy Coaching

Group Helps Staff in Every Subject

It was an hour before her next class — three classes, three lesson plans at once, actually — and Kent City art teacher Amy Foster was already in the hot seat. But she did ask for it. Foster, who is in her second year at the high school, requested that a group of her colleagues observe her in action and let her know how they think she can up her professional game.

“I want to improve my teaching, see what I can do to get better,” Foster said.ς

During the next hour, a half-dozen general and special education teachers from the district would be part of an educators’ learning lab, discreetly taking notes and asking students questions as Foster divided her time among the 11 students. Two are in Foundations of Art, four are taking mixed media and five are digital art students. The attention-juggling can be chaotic.

What: Literacy Coaches Network 10th Anniversary

When: Thursday, May 12, 8 a.m. – 2:45 p.m.

Where: Kent ISD Educational Services Building, 2930 Knapp St. NE. Use parking lot 10

To attend: Open to network members, who may bring one guest. For guest registration email BriConners@kentisd.org

Cost: none

Registration deadline: Monday, May 9

For more information: call Patronella Koster at 616-675-4856 or email patronellak@gmail.com

Foster hoped her peers will look at how she uses her time with each group, and the prompts she gives students to gain the confidence to give and get productive critiques. Her goal, she explained, is to have them take control of their learning.

The observers were also there to learn. Kent City has been holding learning labs for three years in all grade levels.

“You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone if you’re going to keep improving,” said Jamie Kent, a 36-year high school general and special-ed teacher. “I’ve learned a lot through the learning labs and really gained an appreciation for what my colleagues do every day.”

Also observing the learning lab was Kent City High School Principal Bill Crane, who passed this reporter a note (tsk … in school!), on which he had scribbled, “This wouldn’t be happening without LCN.”

“This” is Literacy Coaches Network, a Kent ISD-wide effort to support and improve teachers’ instruction and students’ learning.

Birth of a Network

When Char Firlik was tasked about a decade ago with the creation of what has become known as the Literacy Coaches Network, the now retired educator (OK, semi-retired is likely more accurate) recalls that she had a feeling there would be interest. “We were sweating that we could have up to 40 people at our first meeting,” she recalled. Ninety-three showed up.

The network, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, has consistently had upward of 130 attendees at its five professional development events throughout the school year. More than 1,000 educators have participated since the network was created — about 140 currently are active. An anniversary eventwill be held May 12.

“I think because I’m taking time to reflect lately, I’m realizing what a unique opportunity we were all afforded with these superintendents’ trust in teacher-leaders to gather and to share,” said Firlik, who will step back from her role as leader of the network to concentrate on other projects.

Since its founding, the network has included staff from all of Kent ISD’s 20-district area, plus charter and private schools. And the connections that have been cultivated have allowed educators to bring small and large innovations, from the classroom level to across multiple districts.

“I’m amazed and humbled by all they are doing, not just for students but for their colleagues inside and outside their own districts,” Firlik said.

Char Firlik
Char Firlik

Constant Infusion

The Literacy Coaches Network was formed in 2006 under the direction of KISA, a committee of superintendents from Kent ISD’s 20 constituent public districts, as well as superintendents from the Christian and Catholic school systems in Kent County. Kent ISD’s superintendent at that time was Mike Weiler, currently head of Kent City Community Schools.

There already was a literacy initiative, but the hope was to create a collaborative of teacher-leaders, Firlik said.

“They wanted those teacher-leaders to define our patterns of successes and challenges even more,” she said. “Mike was a big believer in growing from the ground up. He told me, ‘We want somebody to go out there and find our stars.'”

Today, network events are held five full days a year. Events are often centered on the network’s study of a professional development book, and that book’s author will hold an in-person workshop — like having an industry rock star. This year, in November, it will be author Donalyn Miller, “the book whisperer.”

The atmosphere of the events is lively. Teresa McDougall, instructional coach at Kent ISD and Grandville Public Schools, said leadership and membership has been fluid, and that’s a good thing. “There is a constant infusion of ideas and thinking.”

Not Just About Reading — New Math Group Modeled on LCN

Today there are technology, early childhood and science teachers who take part — just to name a few — all concerned about ways to support teachers in the ever-present task of growing students’ thinking. Members include those in general and special education. About half are classroom teachers. Others are Title I teachers, department chairs, community agency staff and more.

“So often in education we say the experts are in the buildings, but there aren’t many opportunities for those individuals who are growing their skill sets to share the authentic work of teaching,” said Nelli Koster, a retired Sparta special and general education teacher who has been pivotal to the network since its inception. “So we have our box and we get to define it and play in it.

“It’s about getting at, what is the thinking going on? We’re developing self-directed, resourceful individuals. And that’s what we want in our students.”

A math literacy group, called the Michigan Mathematics Educators Network, was formed this year. More than 140 people from districts in Kent, Ottawa, Montcalm and Calhoun counties signed up before the first meeting was held in September.

Rusty Anderson has a pretty good idea why the group has taken off, and it’s not only because standardized math scores have been consistently lower than those in reading and English language arts.

“Math presents many challenges for us,” said Anderson, Kent ISD Mathematics Educational Consultant who started the group. “There have been so many shifts in the way it’s taught that teachers are welcoming any support they can get.”

Kent City art teacher Amy Foster readies a class lesson as a group of her colleagues prepares to observe
Kent City art teacher Amy Foster readies a class lesson as a group of her colleagues prepares to observe

LCN: Theory to Action

Anderson said even the first meeting of the math literacy group brought change.

“Number talks have caught on like wildfire,” he said, referring to brief, structured discussions aimed at getting students to share their thinking behind how they solve math problems — without using paper and pencil. And creativity is, unexpectedly, rewarded.

Koster, one of the founding members of the network, said a major practice adopted and still used throughout the network is Cognitive Coaching, a method of communication that roughly translates to “how to support educators in teaching students to think.”

“It transformed our thinking and our work, and has influenced the entire culture of the literacy network.”

Another, used by virtually every district, is the classroom learning labs for teachers, such as the one Amy Foster took part in.

Marie Davis, a middle school social studies teacher at Kent City who helped get learning labs going in the district, said observing an elementary teacher spurred the idea to have her own students read complex lessons at least four times.

“I know it sounds so simple, but it really just did not occur to me,” Davis said. “And doing it has been huge.”

Dorothy VanderJagt, director of professional development at Kent ISD, said the longevity of the network “shows that people are working more collaboratively than ever. Our local districts are seeing the value of continually working together, and through this process we are learning from them what they need and how to support them.”

The Literacy Coaches Network is reaching beyond Kent ISD, through participation in the Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Community Literacy Initiative advisory council, and also by taking part in the center’s annual community literacy summit. In turn, members there have participated in network events, as have those from the broader community.

“We hold the thinking that all aspects of a child’s life and all people who surround a child have the power to influence their literacy attainment,” said Firlik. “The stronger those who are around the student, the stronger the child’s literacy will be.”


Kent ISD Literacy Resources

Grandville teachers reflect on learning labs

Cognitive Coaching (site includes video examples)

Video Demonstration of Number Talks

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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