Teaching Wit & Wisdom lessons demands intellectual energy to engage students in deep thinking. For teachers, working through heavy cognitive tasks, even when we teach the younger grade levels, reminds us that our work is stimulating, fun, and important. In my classroom, the productive struggle in Wit & Wisdom has led to strong student engagement and impressive academic growth. I believe teachers benefit from the same productive struggle in effective instructional coaching.
My first year at my current school was also my first year teaching Wit & Wisdom. My instructional coach was the school leader. She was the first to support me in my work with Wit & Wisdom, and her example set me and my students up for continued success with this incredible curriculum.
Weeks before students arrived, during our first one-on-one content meeting, we took the End-of-Module (EOM) Task assessment together. This was a necessary task but not one I had planned to do with her bearing witness. At the time, I was starting my 13th year in education but only my first year with grade 3. To demonstrate all I didn’t know felt shameful. I didn’t want her to regret hiring me. I was afraid she’d think I was unqualified. I dove in—terrified but willing.
Our meeting went something like this:
My Coach: “So that we know where we’re headed with this module, let’s take the first 10 minutes to draft a response to the EOM Task for Module 1. When we finish, we can compare our drafts with the exemplar and list the content and craft skills needed to successfully write this essay.”
Me: “Sounds great!” (Inner voice: “What did she just say? Uh oh, I don’t know what I’m doing.”)
I spent most of the first five minutes trying to find the task and navigate the website. I then read and reread the directions of the task to figure out what it was asking. I tried to hush my panicked fears that I would not measure up to the teacher she thought I was. I frantically tried to recall each text (that at that point I had merely skimmed) and then finally typed out the first of two paragraphs that ended up being something like this:
In Amos & Boris, William Steig explores the sea because he loves the sea. He creates fictional characters: Amos (a mouse) and Boris (a whale) and has the reader follow them on a fantastical journey through the ocean, surviving a horrifying hurricane. Steig loves the sea so much that he wrote a really entertaining book about it.
When my coach asked me to share so that we could compare, I didn’t feel ready. My face burned with embarrassment. Here I was teaching English language arts and I clearly knew nothing about writing a grade 3 explanatory essay. To my relief, my coach wasn’t expecting perfection. She reassured me that completing the task was a crucial step in teaching the module effectively. After we shared each other’s essays, we read the exemplar in the digital Teacher Edition and identified what both of our drafts were missing. (Her draft wasn’t perfect, either!) We then analyzed the task and identified the necessary steps in teacher planning required for students’ success:
- Deeply read and internalize the texts and topic: How will I ensure students fully comprehend the text and can apply their knowledge to the task?
- Plan before drafting: What can I do to secure time for my students to thoughtfully plan their written response? How can I have them invest in the process?
- Gather strong evidence: How does Wit & Wisdom guide students to identify strong evidence? What supports might my students need to be successful?
- Know the writing model: How can I support students with organization?
Productive struggle doesn’t always look or feel like victory in the moment, but it leads to impressive growth. In content meetings, I backward planned, as I always had before, but this time with a trusted colleague: a coach who gave me freedom to not know and, in a way, to celebrate all the unknowns.
This was our first of many content meetings. We met every week, reflecting on the content knowledge and craft skills I needed to complete the task, on what felt challenging, and on what thinking steps I followed. We then translated these reflections into action steps for effective teaching. We drafted a response to each Focusing Question Task in the same way we responded to the EOM Task, before comparing each response with the provided exemplar. Drafting before looking at the exemplar helped me think deeply about content knowledge and craft skills that my students needed. We identified lessons that worked toward accomplishing each task, the main learning objectives in each task, and the parts of each lesson that allowed students to productively struggle with each objective.
This process helped me pace the lessons—spending more time on the parts of the lesson that allowed students to do the most thinking. Living and breathing the cognitive work with a coach helped me value the time I gave my students to think deeply. Productive struggle doesn’t always look or feel like victory in the moment, but it leads to impressive growth. In content meetings, I backward planned, as I always had before, but this time with a trusted colleague: a coach who gave me freedom to not know and, in a way, to celebrate all the unknowns. She knew that if I had the opportunity to productively struggle, I would learn more. As a result, I could help my students grow through their productive struggle too.
Our students are exceptional humans who deserve the best, and with an excellent instructional coach, I’ve learned to welcome all the things I don’t yet know in order to deeply know. Teaching is hard; I don’t have all the answers and I never will. Wit & Wisdom is rigorous for students and teachers—that’s what makes it engaging and worthy. Excellent instructional coaching needs to deeply engage teachers in the thinking processes, to highlight and celebrate the rigor and joy of such a worthy career.
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Rebecca Burgess is a Grade 3 English language arts teacher and grade-level chair at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, CO, as well as a Wit & Wisdom professional learning facilitator for Great Minds. Rebecca began her education career 15 years ago, teaching various grade-levels at Achievement First and KIPP schools in New Haven, CT and Newark, NJ. She also worked as an Assistant Principal and Interim School Leader in Newark. In her spare time, Rebecca spends time outdoors with her husband and golden retriever, often with a delicious cup of coffee in hand.
Topics: Professional Development