#SOL18 The Labsite

A fellow slicer inquired about labsites as a coaching format. After butchering my initial response, I thought I’d try again to explain them in a clearer way.

Fifteen adults crowded into an already full classroom. They tried to cause as little disruption as possible, but let’s face it, they almost doubled the population of the room. They were hard to miss.

The students, seated on the carpet, looked with curiosity at the grown ups folding themselves into kid sized chairs around the carpet, or sitting criss-cross applesauce right alongside them.

“Readers, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends. We’re all teachers. Your teacher has been telling us such wonderful things about your class that we all wanted to come and see for ourselves. Thank you for having us today.” The consultant settled herself into the teacher’s chair near the chart for the beginning of the mini lesson.

Teacher pens poised above clipboards ready to capture and make tracks of the magic that was about to happen. This person, who didn’t know these kids and possibly wasn’t from this school, was about to model an entire workshop! One group of teachers listened for teacher language- What sorts of prompts or questions might she use? How would she reframe student responses for the class? A second group listened for student talk during the active engagements. A third monitored how the consultant managed her time to keep the lesson moving and brief.

At one point just before she called on children to share in the active engagement she looked up over the children’s heads and voiced over her thinking to the adults in the room. “You’re going to notice how I don’t just ask who wants to share. That could go off the tracks. Instead I’m going to call on two partnerships that I overheard and I already know that what they talked about can help the group.” Then she simply cast her gaze back to the students, reeled them in, and continued on as if there had been no interruption.

A few teachers in the back whispered in amazement that the students were entirely nonplussed by the voice-over. Another was wowed by the simple way the consultant had kept this part of the active engagement both powerful and down to 30 seconds. That was the part of her lesson that sometimes dragged on into double digit minutes.

Following the mini lesson, teachers edged to the outside of the room, making space for students to transition to independent reading. The consultant released them with an “off you go!”

The teachers gathered again at the edges of the carpet and the consultant checked in. “Next I’ll be doing a conference.” Gesturing to one third of the teachers she said, “This group, listen for how I research.” To the next group she advised, “You will make a list of possible compliments I could give the student. And the rest of you, make a list of next steps for this student. What teaching points might I choose?”

With that the classroom teacher quietly tapped a student on the shoulder and motioned him over to the carpet. He sat down across from the consultant.

As she conferred with the boy, teachers leaned in to listen. From time to time they jotted parts of the conversation based on the lens they’d been given.

Five minutes later, the consultant thanked the boy and sent him back to his reading. She turned to the adults and named out what she’d done in the conference. “When we get back to the conference room, we’ll share out the observations you just made and answer any questions. For now, I’d like you to pair up. In each pair decide who will be the teacher, and who will observe and make the conference notes. Remember you’re trying to capture the compliment, the possible next steps, as well as the one teaching point you choose. Ready? Off you go!”

Teachers fanned around the room. Some watched students from afar before pulling up alongside them. Tentatively or with a bit more confidence, teachers of varying experience conferred with readers who were not their own. At their shoulders were trusty partners to capture the key points of the exchange. Meanwhile, the consultant moved from team to team, listening, nodding encouragement, occasionally whispering in to the teacher, then observing a moment longer and moving on.

Five minutes later she called for the partners to switch roles and confer with a different student.

“Readers, I’d like to call you back to the carpet for a share. Please bring…”

After thanking the students and their teacher for opening their classroom, the adults excused themselves and maneuvered back into the hall.


Just as I was writing this slice it dawned on me. A workshop is an oreo! The chocolate cookies are the teacher-led mini lesson and share at the beginning and end of the workshop. In between is the really good stuff, the independent practice! Oh, you thought I was going to say the filling.

If the workshop is an oreo, then a labsite is like a double decker oreo. The pre-meeting where the consultant sets teachers up for what they’ll observe and which parts of the teaching they may try out is a chocolate cookie bit. Then the group goes off to a classroom for the practice part. Yum! And finally they all meet back together after the lesson, to share observations and reflect on what they’ve learned (Hey it’s a teaching share!)–another chocolate cookie.

Labsites are a great, hands on, way to share teaching methods with teachers. Because the consultant (or coach) guides the group to notice certain things, they don’t go by unseen. Since there are so many teaching moves in a single workshop, every teacher, regardless of experience can take away a few things to add to their own basket of tricks. Trying out a new or refined teaching method (or coaching strategy) in a labsite is low risk. Even if your teaching doesn’t go according to plan, you’ve only borrowed these students. Their own teacher will pick things up the next day and carry on with their learning. Because multiple people are trying it out simultaneously, no one has to be on the spot (unless they volunteer for a fishbowl). And yet, you have access to instant feedback about how the attempt went, which means you can revise and improve your practice, on the spot. Labsites are highly engaging, high impact structures for professional learning.

Even better, labsites can be tailored to the current professional learning goals of the participating teachers. Their focus is on conferring? Run two or three rounds of conferences. Short on time? Skip the mini lesson. Confer in one or two different classrooms so each teacher can have multiple attempts. You could do the same if their focus was on small group instruction. Or, teacher volunteers could try out a small group as two or three other teachers observed (with a lens). Then the team could debrief quickly before switching roles.

The teachers’ focus is on building capacity for student talk? Link a workshop to a readaloud block and work on multiple formats of student talk. For the read aloud block focus on lifting the level of whole class conversation by holding a fishbowl grand conversation. Put half the class in the center circle to model a conversation. Put the other half in the outer circle, with a lens like you gave to the teachers in the labsite above. Then have pairs of teachers sit behind the outer ring to observe. The coach, or a couple of brave teacher-volunteers could practice whispering in to support the conversation in the center circle. At the end of the conversation give the outer circle (and teachers) a minute to finish their notes. Then invite the outer circle to name what worked well (a compliment), and propose strategies for improving the conversation. Celebrate both circles for their thoughtfulness and perhaps give them a moment to stretch while you set up for the workshop portion. In the workshop teachers could practice (or observe) coaching into turn and talk, partner conversations, or book clubs.

The labsite doesn’t take fancy equipment. You need a way to release teachers from their classes while they participate. It takes some planning on the part of whoever will be leading the labsite. But aside from open minds and a favorite notebook and pen, no other special resources are required.

Thanks to Tammy for reaching out to collaborate coach to coach! While we’re leading professional learning for our teachers, we also need advice and feedback to grow our practice. It’s great to grow a digital PLN here at Two Writing Teachers. Thank you to the TWT team for hosting the annual Slice of Life Challenge that gathers us together.


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