Thursday, May 7, 2009

This morning, I had the opportunity to introduce my sister at a workshop she gave for Academic Coaches in North Carolina. She wrote the book "Differentiated Literacy Coaching" (ASCD). Having been an Academic Coach in this same district in the not so distant past made me realize that leaving was the best idea ever. Introductions are like a writing genre unto itself, and I believe, when drafting, allows the audience to hear the "story behind the story".

Whenever I read a new book, I always go to the dedication page and Mary happened to dedicate this one to our parents where she says: “For my loving parents, you passed on to me a love of learning, a sense of community spirit, and an intellectual curiosity about the world around me. For this and for so many gifts I cannot begin to measure, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

If you could work with me for a moment, I have to make an important phone call and I need your help. You see, it is my mom’s 83rd birthday, or somewhere about, and I thought in the spirit of community with you all we could wish her a happy birthday. Her name is Catherine, but no one calls her that. So make sure you call her Polly. And we can chant all at once: “Happy Birthday Polly”

[I called my mom on the phone and the collective group sang her a Happy Birthday song over the phone.]

More than likely what I have to tell you about Mary probably wouldn’t find itself on the “About the Author” page of her next book. Instead, what I have to share is the back story of a life told in a way that only a little brother could tell it. And hopefully, with the story you are about to hear, you too, will get a sense of why she does the work that she does working alongside classroom teachers; why she believes in the principles and protocols outlined in the book as steps that can be taken so that the most important voice in the conversation, that of the classroom teacher, can be heard.

If there were a way to predict the way lives unfold, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised that Mary would be doing the work that she does. You see, as far back as I can remember, she allowed her younger siblings the opportunity to dream, to build, and to think of possibility.

For example, sometime in the late 60’s, we sat at the corner of Prospect and Irasburg selling lemonade to practically no one. At first, we thought that this wasn’t such a good idea because it was hot that July afternoon and the pavement at our feet was a scorcher. However, what I do remember is that Mary convinced us that selling this lemonade was the best idea ever and the money we made: we got to keep. That is what Coaches are able to do. Make believers out of the ones, who, at first, think that the ideas shared aren’t useful and if done supportively gives classroom teachers shiny pebbles in their pockets.

And speaking of pebbles, on a trip to Washington, the state; Mary, my brother and I found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine where Mary began collecting these pebbles. This is what coaches do, they are resourceful and do what it takes to work alongside classroom teachers gathering the pebbles that when used, create a beautiful garden. However, the difference was, on this trip, they weren’t pebbles at all, but gigantic rocks that she proceeded to put in her pocketbook. This would have been reasonable if she lived a few hours away; she didn’t. I began to question her sanity because she lived in New York. She needed them for her rock garden, she said. All I could do was shake my head. This is also what coaches do.

Mary was the person who couldn’t sit still (sounds familiar, huh) and as she ventured off to college and in between made her way to Paris and Ireland and other places around the globe she would always come back home again to the ones of us still there telling us the snippets of her story and all that she learned along the way.

Mary recently sent me one of her articles that she wrote titled, “Utilizing Information technologies to Support Coaching. Can you Teach an Old Dog New Tricks” and in it she talks about: the listserv; the podcast; the twitter; the wiki; the blogs and the google. You see, this is one thing Mary does. She isn’t afraid to learn new things; explore unchartered waters; or admit that she doesn’t have all the answers; instead, she takes that country road forward and along with the ones she coaches, continues to learn herself. She takes the first step by developing relationships with those mentors who will help her grow. It is not a mentor that someone else provides for her, but one she seeks out and is based on the direction her learning takes. Sometimes she finds them in unexpected places: the ‘autistic woman’ she was a companion of for a year in the 70’s; a storyteller she shares a house with during her work week; or her little brother. This is what coaches do.

Over the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mary as she worked within districts and schools in North Carolina, Maryland and New York. And throughout this time, something that I always knew, I witnessed her ability to make relationships instantly with the ones she meets. She does this by first, listening to the stories that are told; then, threads possibility in the midst and finally, supports the act of “trying it on”. She creates structures that give permission for classroom teachers to dream, to build, and to think…. ….of possibility. This is what coaches do.

Finally, as she shares with you the research and practical structures from her book, think in terms of how these are possible within your role as literacy facilitators. Think about the areas that need to be strengthened in terms of your direct service to building capacity within your school, whether that be in the form of lesson development, co-teaching, demonstrations or collaborative observations. And remember that the cycle of learning is continuously in motion so you too can dream, can build, and think of possibility…..