Remote Coaching for Rigorous and Engaging Online Classroom Discussions: Layering New Forums with Fresh Insights

By Lindsay Clare Matsumura and Dena Zook-Howell

Institute for Learning and LRDC

In many districts, teachers have worked hard to incorporate Accountable Talk® practices that enable rich classroom discussions. In the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities in resources available to students have been further exacerbated. Often student learning is interrupted by inequitable access to computers and to the internet. Burdens on teachers and other educators also are extreme. Teachers are contending with their own hardships in addition to teaching online for the first time with little training. It can feel like rigorous and interactive conversations are no longer an option. It is possible, however, to engage students in the kinds of rigorous and interactive discussions online that are foundational to student learning. Coaches, even while practicing social distancing, have an important role to play in assisting teachers to continue, rather than abandon, this important pedagogy. Here we describe some things that we are learning from our ongoing research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center on how coaches can support teachers remotely to engage students in rigorous and interactive online discussions.

What is different about coaching in a pandemic?

Coaching teachers remotely during a pandemic is similar to face-to-face coaching in its focus on student thinking, rigorous content, and cultivation of an inquiry stance toward instruction. Overlaid on top of these, however, is a new role for coaches to support teachers to use features of online platforms to achieve particular learning goals and establish positive online communities. Compounding these knowledge demands is the very real uncertainty that teachers themselves are experiencing in this pandemic. Uncertainty and anxiety provide a weak springboard for learning and responding to teachers emotionally in this new environment is a larger part of the coaching context than it was previously. In the following sections, we discuss specific ways coaches can support teachers to move their discussions online.

⁘ Helping teachers reestablish their classroom learning community.

Even though teachers may have established a strong learning community in their face-to-face instruction, it is likely they will need to reestablish their learning community in the new online environment. Teachers may find, for example, that students who jump in right away during in-person discussions are reluctant to participate in online conversations (and vice versa). Encouraging teachers to take the time to promote the same climate and norms online is essential. This is not a step backwards but instead a path forward to creating the necessary conditions for optimizing online instruction.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community. These should begin with non-academic, low-risk interactions that build toward the academic, robust interactions that support student learning. A sample sequence might begin with each student showing a pet or a favorite toy/hobby to the group. The next interaction could require students to share or upload a picture or description of their favorite place in their home to read or relax, and then, in turn, explain to the group why they chose that place. The idea is to reintroduce students to each other, strengthen a home and school connection, and allow students to get used to the platform before launching into rigorous academic content.

Certain features of online discussion platforms also can be useful to support a low-risk way for students to gain entry into online discussions. This can be especially important for students who are developing their English language skills or for other reasons may feel shy to participate. For example, the polling feature on many platforms can be a useful way to start a discussion or keep students engaged throughout a discussions in the same way that turn and talk can be useful for students to try out their ideas with a peer before speaking with a whole group. We describe this further in the next section.

Establishing powerful and clear online learning routines.

Clear and consistently applied routines that scaffold students’ engagement with complex content are critical to effective classroom discussions, and this is especially the case for online class discussions. An important job of coaches is to help teachers think through what their learning routines will be to achieve particular purposes and goals in discussions, and then connect these routines to features and functions of learning technologies and platforms. Online learners can very easily get lost and confused. Teachers must be far more explicit when giving directions to students online than when teaching face to face (which is all the more reason to develop routines and stick with them). Coaches can assist teachers by helping them develop and trouble shoot directions for participating in different activities. This can help ensure that students’ energy is spent learning and not figuring out what they are supposed to be doing. Fortunately, technologies have advanced to the level that powerful routines for in-person instruction can be translated to an online environment.

⁘ Learning new technologies to support student learning. 

The ability to put online student-centered learning routines into play is dependent on teachers’ familiarity with technology (e.g., discussion platforms such as Microsoft teams). For many teachers, however, the demands entailed in learning new technologies and discussion platforms are overwhelming. The need for differentiated assistance from coaches includes understanding and responding to the range of comfort levels and knowledge of technologies/platforms that provide current instructional options. Coaches can differentiate tech support in a number of ways, such as the following:

  • Modeling a classroom online discussion. One way coaches can support teachers is to engage a group of teachers in a discussion (e.g., a model lesson), showing them ways that features can be used to meet particular learning goals (e.g., small group breakout rooms in place of “turn and talks” or a polling feature or chat box to gather individual student thinking for all to see.).
  • Creating a safe place to experiment. Coaches also can act as students in practice meetings so that teachers can “try on” various teacher moves through the features of the platform, or convene a group of teachers to take turns conducting a mock discussion and using the features.
  • Co-teaching. If teachers feel unsure about conducting online discussions, coaches can co-teach with teachers, acting as a co-host to assist with technology, if that is necessary (e.g., moving students in and out of breakout sessions, switching to a whiteboard or document reader, etc.).
  • Cultivate peer mentoring. Coaches need not have all the tech wisdom. Coaches can also assist teachers to share their knowledge and support mentor/learner partnerships between teachers via conference calls or video meetings. This is a time to cultivate peer mentoring and “think partners,” and coaches are uniquely positioned to know the strengths and needs of the individual teachers and grade levels, and harness the potential for new kinds of professional learning communities.

⁘ Planning lessons for teachers.

Ordinarily, coaches support teachers to plan for class discussions. In a pandemic, however, coaches can ease the stress teachers may be feeling by creating model lessons for class discussions to support individual teachers or groups of teachers. In planning for an online lesson, it is important to consider how particular features of an online platform might be used to further particular learning goals. For example, what kinds of questions might be more productively taken up in whole group discussion or small group breakout sessions? Students can sometimes get antsy sitting in online discussions—what kinds of activities (e.g., polls, responding to teacher questions in the chat feature, doing a stop and jot on sticky notes to share onscreen) might be useful for helping students stay engaged in the discussion?

⁘ Choosing texts.

Something to consider in lesson planning is that students may miss multiple days of school. It might be a good idea to plan around short texts that contain sufficient grist to support a rich online discussion but would not pose a barrier to students reengaging in discussions after several absences. Another consideration is that students are likely to feel more disconnected from school when attending online than when they are attending in person, in addition to grappling with challenges and hardships. We always want students to read engaging texts. But now more than ever is a time to think about texts that will pique student interest and get them thinking, but not require extensive scaffolding to wade through the language. Notably, if groups of teachers want to use the lessons, as described earlier, coaches could engage the teachers in a run through of the lesson with the teachers providing instruction around the platform use throughout.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

In the same way that teachers need to reestablish their classroom learning community when they move to an online format, it is important that coaches work to reestablish their professional learning communities with teachers when coaching remotely. Now more than ever, the balance of content for initial coaching conversations, if not all coaching conversations, will require much more time upfront supporting the social emotional aspect of professional collaboration. Teachers, like many other Americans, are stressed, anxious, lonely, fearful for loved ones, and/or may be experiencing financial distress. Many of their students are also facing significant hardships. Listening to teachers speak to their own experience and concerns is important for both supporting teachers emotionally and helping coaches gauge the kinds of options to pursue together, based on each teacher’s interest and readiness to try new things—one new thing or many new things. Some teachers might feel ready to learn all of the ins and outs of a platform; other teachers might want to move a little slower if they are feeling overwhelmed.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

Although the sense of co-accountability and collaborative problem solving may already be a foundation for your coach-teacher relationships, it is incumbent upon coaches to reframe an inquiry stance in light of this moment. Reminding teachers that we, as a national and global educational community, are all learning together right now, positions discussions to lean into tests of small change. Cultivating an inquiry stance about technology options and which factors seem to be supporting or impeding student learning is critical. Additionally, focusing on student engagement, which is easier to assess and address in-person, requires a critical stance.

Adopting an inquiry stance also can help draw teachers’ (and coaches’) attention to some of the potential affordances of online instruction—for now and for later. Many teachers are reporting that some students participate more in this online environment and some participate less. By studying student engagement, coaches can support teachers to notice aspects of online instruction that support the majority of students as well as specific students. Again, approaching this as an inquiry allows actual study to occur. It may well be that some students will be most supported with a part of their day online, even when instruction becomes in-person again.


® Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Accountable Talk® Discussions, ELA, Equitable Instruction, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Online Instruction, Principles of Learning, Reading / Comprehension

Principals Leading with a Coaching Lens

By Ariane Watson and Veronica Strueve

Principal and Assistant Principal, Propel Schools- Pitcairn
Before becoming building principals, we were instructional coaches, each of us having coached either mathematics or ELA. Instruction was always the focus of our coaching work. After several years as principals, we realized that though supporting teaching and learning was a component of our work, it was no longer the focus. Once we came to that realization, we knew that we needed to make some changes.

At the end of the 2018–2019 school year, in anticipation of the next year, we took stock of what was going well with instruction in the classrooms. We reviewed the state data across the years and looked more closely at the district and building data. We also inquired about new instructional materials being purchased by the district and learned that the new materials were comprised mainly of tasks and texts of high-level cognitive demand.

The insights we gained from this preliminary work suggested that students needed more rigorous learning opportunities and that teachers needed opportunities to learn about and refine their practices related to instructional conversations. It was at that moment that we committed to making support for instruction the priority, and in doing so, revived our coaching lens.

We engaged the Institute for Learning as a partner in education and began crafting a plan for the 2019-2020 school year. We started by conducting an Asset Walk was which allowed us to name aspects of classroom practice that could serve as the foundation on which to build. With the adoption of high-quality instructional materials, we decided that the best way to increase academic rigor and enhance the quality of scholar discourse was to focus on Accountable Talk® practices.

We knew that as instructional leaders, the changes we sought would only happen if we maintained a laser-like focus on facilitating Accountable Talk discussions and supported teachers in both learning and refining their instructional practices. Although we were in the role of principals, we knew that putting on our “coaching hat” was key to supporting the teachers. With this in mind, we built a yearlong PD plan dedicated to the study of Accountable Talk practices. It included a series of cross-content professional development sessions. The sessions provided educators opportunities to gain insights about high-leverage instructional practices of which facilitating Accountable Talk discussion is one, the dimensions of equity as related to equitable instruction, ways to support the development of student agency, and the role of socializing intelligence. The plan allowed for frequent content-based PLCs so that Accountable Talk practices could be explored deeply within a content area. As part of the PLC work, educators coded classroom transcripts for Accountable Talk features to better understand what it takes to implement these practices and to track the implementation of these practices over-time.

Since we know that refining practice doesn’t just happen overnight, so in addition to the work outlined in the PD calendar and plan, we also linked our walk-throughs and formal evaluations to the learning and insights gained by educators during PD sessions and PLCs. We also committed to providing time for classroom educators to reflect on practice through classroom case stories so that they can share their implementation journeys. The work also includes learning labs so that classroom educators can see each other engage in planning for, facilitating, and reflecting on Accountable Talk discussions of high-level tasks.

As a community of educators, everyone is encouraged to continuously look for and name what is working related to the implementation of Accountable Talk practices, so there is regular feedback on our collective efforts. As part of the feedback (and central to improvement work), we wonder about and identify a specific aspect of practice for further inquiry. We know that sustainable change takes time, and we have committed to a three-year process to support classroom educators as they refine their professional skills and competencies related to content pedagogy.

Having the intentional focus of increasing academic rigor and the use of the high-leverage practice facilitating Accountable Talk discussions has allowed us to reclaim our coaching lens. And, in doing so, we have been able to more effectively support classroom educators as they refine their instructional practices to create more equitable learning environments.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Clear Expectations and Self-Management of Learning: Moving the Principles of Learning from Theory to Practice

By Danielle Mastrogiovanni, EdS

New Brunswick Public Schools Supervisor of Humanities, Grades 1-6

In thinking about the work we have been moving throughout our district, we are extremely proud of the way our teachers have been incorporating Clear Expectations and Self-Management of Learning, two of the Principles of Learning that are inextricably connected.  At the onset of our work in New Brunswick Public Schools, we noticed that there was a problem of practice during small group instruction period that was impacting both our teacher-facilitated Guided Reading, as well as student-led Literacy Centers during this time.  In brief, we recognized that teachers needed support in order to provide explicit instruction of developmentally appropriate reading strategies and guidance on how to create cognitively demanding center tasks that would encourage opportunities for rigorous, independent student learning. 

We first focused on refining the use of generalized reading strategies for all students, at all levels.  We created a Guided Reading planner that not only asked teachers to identify the specific skill or strategy that they were planning to teach, but asked them to think through the explicit instructional moves that they were going to use in order to do so.  This not only set up clear expectations for the students but also for the teachers.  The article, “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education,” (Resnick and Hall, 2000) states that in order for “teaching and learning environments to create intelligence, they must communicate clear expectations about what students will learn, how they will learn it, and what qualifies as good work.”  Providing both teachers and students with clear expectations of what “good” teaching and learning during Guided Reading should look like, in addition to a bank of resources that enabled them to select and plan appropriate lessons, truly helped everyone to develop a common understanding of both the rationale and the pedagogy required to increase reading proficiency across the district.

We also felt it paramount to address what the rest of the class would be doing independently while the teacher was busy working with the students in Guided Reading.  For the most part, we observed students engaging with tasks that required low levels of cognitive demand; unclear about what they were being asked to do, the purpose of the work or what the expected outcomes were.  The center tasks lacked both clarity of expectations and discouraged self-management of learning.   In response, we created a checklist that identified and described the necessary components of small group instruction; planning, organization, relevance, rigor, choice, differentiation, accountability, and feedback. We then collected center tasks that were currently in use in order to analyze them through this lens.  After identifying the places where the tasks fell short, teachers worked together to improve the existing tasks which we used to create a bank of “before and after” task cards that exemplified the necessary shifts in instruction.  Exemplar tasks, which included visual, step by step instructions of what to do at each center from start to finish were created and shared so that teachers across the district could refer to, reproduce and modify the tasks as needed to meet the needs of their students. These tasks not only provided clarity, but also encouraged students to “take responsibility for their own engagement with learning… work productively and without distraction in a variety of settings—independently, with a partner, or in small groups—without the need for constant adult supervision,” (Hall and Resnick, 2000) critical components of successful Self-Management of Learning.  

I firmly believe that the root of our success has been grounded in our ability to move teachers from theory to practice. In closing, if we as leaders want teachers to begin to shift their thinking and move from basic to best practice, it is critical that we provide teachers with both the theory behind the Principles of Learning as well as tangible supports that allow them to identify and replicate what they look like in action. 

Tagged with: ELA, Instructional Coaching, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Supporting Coaches to Lead Change Efforts at Their Schools

By Sara DeMartino

IFL ELA Fellow

As part of the Networks for School Improvement (NSI) work, I’ve been working directly with 8th grade coaches and their grade-level professional learning community (PLC) teams in the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) to understand and use two protocols that first work to honor the knowledge and day-to-day lived experiences that teachers bring with them to their PLCs, and then ask teachers to critically reflect on classroom experiences and student work to increase professional knowledge and enhance student learning (Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). The protocols I’ve asked coaches to use with PLCs were created to mirror the protocols already in use in the district. The goal of creating protocols for the PLCs was to create a seamless integration of the NSI Planning Forward and Looking Back protocols into the already-existing PLC structures for 8th grade teams. The NSI teams also wanted the protocols to be instructive—we want school teams to learn and internalize the work of planning student-facing task sheets for cognitively demanding tasks and texts so that teachers become adept at creating and adapting task sheets for different tasks and different students based on what they learn from studying the student work.

These protocols are also meant to facilitate the integration of small tests of change into PLC work as part of our partnership with Dallas ISD on improvement science. The 8th grade English language arts/reading coaches from our seven partner middle schools have been tasked with facilitating two PLCs per week as part of our NSI partnership—one PLC that asks the 8th grade team to plan forward and create a student-facing task sheet around a high-level comprehension task (the first test of change that teachers are working on; to read more about professional development on high-level tasks, please check out “Empowering teachers to analyze the demand of instructional tasks” in the February 2019 issue of Bridges to Learning), and one that asks PLCs to look back and analyze student work to understand what students learned and could do in response to the task to inform the planning of instructional next steps.

Part of helping coaches learn from the protocols was the creation of a facilitator’s guide for each PLC. Coaching coaches at distance provides its own challenges, so I created the facilitator’s guides to provide insight into how each step of the Planning Forward and Looking Back PLC protocols might unfold during the PLC—I wanted to provide rationales to the coaches leading the PLC so that they could answer questions and support their teachers.

The educative features in each of the facilitator’s guides explain why each step in the protocol is necessary to build teacher capacity to design high-level tasks and sequence student-centered routines that provide students pathways to sharing their thinking about challenging (and gristy) texts, so that students are asked to do the heavy cognitive lifting in class.

These facilitator’s guides have also become my own test of change; in much the same way teachers in the NSI middle schools are trying out and adapting the student-facing tasks sheets based on teachers’ classroom observations and student work, I am trying out and adapting the facilitator’s guides and Planning Forward and Looking Back protocols based on the needs of the coaches and the PLCs.

During monthly meetings with the coaches, we debrief the use of the PLC documents, discuss successes and challenges, and share next steps. This process allows coaches to network across schools and learn from each other; it also provides me with information on how to revise and refine the work coaches are being asked to lead.


Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80-91. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2007.01.004

Tagged with: ELA, Instructional Coaching

Conferring with Teachers & Coaches Requires Setting Clear Learning Goals

By Lindsay Clare Matsumura

IFL Co-director

Conferring with teachers in advance of observing a lesson is a critical component of the Content-Focused Coaching® (CFC) cycle. These “pre-conferences” are opportunities for the coach and the teacher to reflect together about a teacher’s lesson plan, and thus are a rich opportunity for teacher learning. Lesson planning is specifically important for facilitating rigorous Accountable Talk® classroom discussions. For such discussions to be successful, teachers need to set clear and specific learning goals and plan questions that support students to achieve these goals. Teachers also need to anticipate content that might pose difficulty for students, or might require background information to understand, and have a plan for what to do if students seem lost or are not participating. Absent this advance planning, it is all too easy for class discussions to lose focus and develop in ways that do not further student learning.

Planning for rigorous Accountable Talk discussions, however, can be challenging. Here we describe some specific ways that coaches can help teachers when they are first beginning to develop lessons for rigorous and interactive text discussions that build students’ reading comprehension skills.

Specify the learning goals.

When teachers are first beginning to plan for text discussions, they tend to set very general learning goals for their class discussions. For example, they might set as their learning goal that students comprehend the theme of the book or the topic of a reading. Teachers can also conflate learning activities with goals, for example, that students actively participate in the discussion or complete an assigned task. In all of these cases, when reflecting on a teacher’s lesson plan, a coach can help by working with a teacher to clarify the major understandings or ideas students are to glean from a text or lesson, and ‘right size’ their learning goals so that they are feasible to attain in a lesson.

Minimize front loading information.

Students sometimes need a little background knowledge to grapple productively with complex content. When teachers are first beginning to plan for rigorous discussions, however, there can be a tendency to provide—often at the beginning of a lesson —a great deal of background information in the form of a lecture, pictures, or even videos. This can be problematic in literacy instruction because “too much” information can reduce the rigor of the reading experience for students as they may no longer need to rely on text language to construct an understanding of a text. Or in the case of mathematics instruction, front loading too much information can “give away” the answer or strategy for solving a problem before students have a chance to solve the problem independently. Background information that is tangential to the text or problem also can distract students from key ideas and set discussions on a path that leads them away from intended learning goals. In the pre-conference, a coach can help teachers by supporting them to clarify the minimum amount of information students need to engage in a discussion, while not reducing the rigor of students’ experience.

Develop queries to address big ideas and possible misunderstandings.

Developing open-ended queries that move students toward intended learning, and Accountable Talk moves if students appear lost or are not participating, is a critical component of effective lesson planning. When teachers begin to plan for rigorous class discussions, there can be a tendency to develop questions for which there is only one correct answer, or to develop questions that can unwittingly focus students’ attention on tangential information that can distract from the intended learning for a lesson. Planned questions can also contain extra wording that constrains student thinking (e.g., What is happening now that Samar has come home from school and the reporter is asking questions?), or in the case of literacy instruction, direct students to focus on a narrow portion of a text. A coach can help a teacher by working with them to carefully word their planned queries so that they open up avenues for student thinking and opportunities for students to think together to make sense of challenging content.

When students engage in successful Accountable Talk discussions, it is important to remember what takes place in order for these discussions to be effective. Providing teachers with opportunities to participate in CFC cycles around Accountable Talk discussions allows the coach and the teacher to reflect on the lesson plan, thinking about the learning goals and the specific questions designed by the teacher to move the discussion forward, and achieve the identified learning goals.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, ELA, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Math, Principles of Learning