Waiting in the Wings

What are the combined roles of support and collaboration in education?

If you are a teacher, I hope you have had the experience of working with other teachers in an effective Professional Learning Community. PLC’s can reduce the workload for teachers while increasing student success. Teachers often feel like they must be responsible to plan every lesson, individually track every student’s progress, and single-handedly create every assessment. Teachers who work together can set aside teacher burdens and see (and meet) more student needs.

Some PLC’s are more effective than others. If you are working in a less effective PLC, what would make it better?

How do your administrators and district personnel support you? Granted, you may also have had administrators and district staff you feel are less effective, but truly their role is support. Have you taken the time to get to know what they do? Have you communicated with them your needs? Do you know how and where they can provide support?

I am working in a new role this year. I will still be teaching half-time, and I’m so happy that I still get to spend a portion of my time with students. I’ll also be working in the district half-time, helping to build and support the Utah Microcredentials program. If you don’t yet know about microcredentials, I hope you will take some time to learn about them.

Microcredentials are personalized, competency-based professional development for teachers. Work at your own pace, not checking off assignments, but submitting evidence of competency in your classroom. Utah State is working to build teacher endorsements through microcredentials. Several endorsement areas are already available with microcredentials, and the goal is that all endorsements will eventually be available with microcredentials.

This will be a huge benefit to teachers like me, who have changed subject matter and age groups over the years and have had to get new endorsements through university programs for every subject I am licensed to teach. As a full-time teacher, working toward endorsements in a university program can be overwhelming! I’m excited to be able to support teachers who want to work on endorsements as a natural by-product of what they are already doing, without having to enroll in yet another university, pay high tuition costs, and figure out how to attend classes and teach at the same time.

As you get to know me, you’ll learn that I find connections to my work everywhere I go, even on vacation.

Mr. Coray and I were happy to be able to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival at the end of July. For those who haven’t had the chance to attend, the Shakespeare Festival includes high-quality productions of a variety of types of plays, but you can also attend free events and seminars.

We had tickets to see “Clue,” which was more fun than the movie, with stronger female characters, more board-game references, more physical humor, more endings, and even athletics and acrobatics. The actors were wonderful.

My favorite part of the festival, though, was the costume seminar with Sarah McCarroll, Wardrobe Supervisor and Costume Manager. I loved the insider details about the costumes, and Sarah had a delightful sense of humor. I took notes and even asked her afterward if I could quote her.

Much of what Sarah said felt connected to what I do, not only because I love costumes and fashion design, but because it relates to education.

Sarah talked about how acting is a job with a high cognitive load. There’s just so much to remember! Sarah can reduce the cognitive load for the actors by making sure they never have to give a thought to the next costume. She is simply waiting in the wings with the next costume ready to go. She said, “My job is to give the actors the tools to do what they need to do.”

Teaching is another job with a high cognitive load. Trying to remember everything that has to be done is intense! As teachers, we can provide similar support to each other by collaborating on lesson plans and brainstorming solutions to problems together. Administrators, support personnel, and district employees can also ensure that teachers have resources in place so that they don’t have to carry the entire burden of teaching alone.

People who sew tend to fall into two categories—those who create clothing, and those who quilt. Both require a specific skill set, and most people who sew focus on one or the other. Creating clothing requires the ability to get a good fit with quality construction. It’s highly technical and rarely cost-effective in a world of fast fashion. Some people call it a dying art. For that reason, it’s not easy to find quality fabrics for clothing.

Hobbyist quilters, on the other hand, are common. Local fabric stores cater to them with a large variety of colorful prints. When asked about sourcing fabric for costumes, Sarah said, “Here in Cedar City, we have JoAnn’s. JoAnn’s has some lovely quilters’ cottons.” Then, gesturing to a rack of costumes she added, “You don’t see any of those here.”  

Often teachers don’t have something given to them easily ready-made. Effective lesson planning requires technical skill. It’s hard work. And it turns out best when we source quality materials and use effective teaching techniques.  

Sarah showed us the lining and boning on the inside of one of the actress’s dresses. She explained that the costumes have to last the season, show after show every day, which means that the costumes must be just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.

Lesson plans that look easy and beautiful on the outside require significant planning and quality strategies on the inside. Again, effective collaboration makes this task easier.

When asked about the authenticity of the costumes, Sarah told us that they strive for historical accuracy, except in the case of the closures. The festival uses giant parka zippers in the backs of the dresses for quick costume changes. She told us that at the beginning of the season, there are costume changes they think they’ll never get done in time. “After a few weeks,” she joked, “We can do an 18-second costume change with enough time left over for a ham sandwich.”

Teaching is like this too. I remember early on in my teaching career thinking that I would never be able to juggle everything I needed to do at once, including presenting material, managing behaviors, documenting problems, watching for and providing feedback, and fully engaging students. Little by little, things like classroom management come to be second nature, and teaching becomes more comfortable. If you are a new teacher, go easy on yourself as the pieces come together. You’re learning, and you’ll get there!

I was so excited about Sarah’s presentation that I made a collage to help me remember the ideas that came with her words. As a teacher, I hope I continue to collaborate with and provide support for teachers around me. As a district employee, I also want to provide support that makes teachers’ jobs easier.

If you’re a teacher, I hope I can help reduce your cognitive load by sharing ideas that will help you feel like you don’t have to worry about the next costume. It will simply be waiting in the wings, ready to go.


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Pralines and Social Justice

Several colleagues from work recently visited New Orleans for training. And that got me thinking about Louisiana.

I come by my occasional use of “Y’all” honestly. It’s a part of my family history. Last summer we traced that history back to Louisiana, from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, to where my great grandmother spent her childhood. She was born in a flood year in a little house next to the river. A few years after her birth, that little house washed off the blocks into the river and the family was forced to move.

Their new home was on a plantation where they had servants, and, in the early 1900’s, my great grandma grew up with views about separation between white and black people. She told my dad she believed in “separate but equal”—and she truly meant equal. My dad did his best to convince her that separate never was and never would be equal.

Great Grandma’s father died when she was still young. The family eventually lost the plantation and relocated again.

I don’t remember my great grandmother, but I was close to her husband, my great grandfather. I adored him. My father adored him. I knew that Great Grandpa occasionally used racial slang my parents found unacceptable, and which we were never to use. I never heard my grandfather speak in a way that meant harm. His language came from his culture. I believe that if he lived now, he would have learned how to leave that language behind. He had a generous heart, and he loved people.

I believe that my great grandmother, who taught migrant children in a classroom near the border of Texas and Mexico, would now open up her classroom, and her heart, to any student of any color, background, or ability level.

People can change, and that’s the best I can hope for anyone.

People have a better chance of change when we can have open, productive dialogue about what is and has been hurtful and what can bring about healing.

Earlier this year, I had someone I respect tell me that the only problem with race is that we keep talking about it, and if we want to solve problems with race, we need to stop talking about it and just be color blind.

I disagree.

There was a time in my life when I naively believed that racial strife in America was a thing of the past. I have always been blessed to live around family members and friends from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I had college roommates from all over the world. I’m fortunate to have been accepted by friends from a variety of nationalities.

I remember a night in college when I sat down with roommates from Japan, and we exchanged stories about our grandfathers who served on opposite sides during World War II. My roommates had heard their grandfathers talk about the devastation caused by the bomb. We had an open, honest conversation, and our respect for each other grew.

Perhaps I thought that open, positive conversations were the norm. You don’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know until our family became a multi-ethnic family through the miracle and gift of adoption. And then I knew. Then we faced unexpected micro-aggressions connected to race.

The truth is that I still don’t know what I still don’t know. I can’t imagine what struggles some people face solely because of the color of their skin, their neighborhood, or a perceived disability. The only way I can learn is through open dialogue. I am so thankful when others are willing to be vulnerable enough to share their stories with me. I do the best I can to listen and to ask how I can support.

Acknowledging injustices and atrocities of the past does not require me to accept the burden of guilt. Rather, it invites me to seek change to end injustice and inequality now. It gives me the opportunity to be more fully aware of the needs of fellow travelers on Earth.

During my teacher training I had a class on social justice in education. We were required to memorize the professor’s definition of social justice so that we could write it on our end-of-semester test. Here’s his definition:

“Social Justice is the ability to pedagogically execute fair and equitable classroom practices that result in opportunity, access, and democratic, participatory learning.”

Yeah. The vocabulary is intense.

Here’s what it means to me. Social justice means inclusion. It means giving equitable opportunities to every student, regardless of their language, culture, background, abilities, or disabilities. It goes beyond that too. It means expressing interest when a student shares something about their culture that is different from mine. Maybe that means asking them to tell me more about their holiday and how they celebrate. Maybe that means asking what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. Maybe that means allowing myself to be vulnerable. Doing so lets me help every student feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. That’s my definition of social justice.

A little over a year ago I was walking around a souvenir shop in Natchez, Mississippi, when a man at the counter asked with the slowest Southern drawl I had ever heard, “Do y’all wanna buy some praw-leans?” His voice had almost a magical quality, as if to say, “There’s nowhere to go—not a care in the world. Time will stop for you in this moment.” I remembered my mom telling me that pralines were my grandma’s favorite treat, and I couldn’t resist.

I love authentic representations of culture, and sometimes I have a need to re-create the authenticity I have found in other cultures by cooking their food. Making food helps me feel connected to people.

I made “praw-leans” this Saturday afternoon as I thought about Louisiana, my family history, and social justice. I thought about social justice as I stirred and stirred and watched the candy thermometer rise. I thought about authenticity and inclusion and the sweetness of the result.

And all of that fused into the finished product.

There are invitations all around us—voices beckoning us to slow down, to stop and see people for who they really are; to put ourselves in their shoes, to break down barriers and to lift those who are tired of the battle. We have both the power and the opportunity to change time in this moment.

Do y’all wanna try some praw-leans?


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Choice as the First Step in Personalization

For several years I had a custom sewing and alterations business in a home studio. I put emphasis on the magic of a perfect fit. Clothes that fit well are flattering and build confidence in the wearer. When we teach interior design, we help students understand that effective interior design begins with understanding the needs and wants of the client. In the food-services industry every restaurant offers a menu with choices that will meet a variety of needs and tastes.

It makes sense that if we want students fully engaged in the process of learning, we need to offer them choice with opportunities that are precisely tailored to their needs. Student agency must be built into everything we do. Choice is not only the first step to personalized learning. It also provides automatic differentiation, which, in turn means inclusion for students from varied backgrounds and abilities. Choice allows us to offer our students the magic of the perfect fit. That, in turn, builds confidence, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

Teachers know that we should always begin lesson planning with the end in mind. Activities and assessments should align with objectives. That’s Teaching 101, and I’d like to go beyond that here. Keep all your effective, research-based best practices! Activities and assessments should still align with objectives. But when I’m lesson planning, I now add the element of choice whenever I can. Choice is the scale or measure I hold up to each new lesson plan. Students respond in amazing ways when they can make the activities and assessments meet their needs.

It’s important not to go crazy with personalization. If I could give one piece of advice, I’d say, “Start small. But do start.” Pick one or two lesson plans you’re already familiar with and see if there’s a way to add more choice into what you’re already doing. Once you feel steady with one or two lessons, reflect on what you’ve learned and build from there.

What does adding choice look like in the classroom? Here’s just one example.

My 8th graders have several State standards they need to meet in connection with sewing and textiles. These standards include using equipment properly and following safety requirements as well as using specific industry sewing techniques. In the past, we’ve met these standards over a 12-day unit with most of those days in our sewing lab. After two days focused on how to use equipment properly and safely, students create a drawstring backpack that incorporates all the techniques required by the State standards. Once students finish the backpack I have always let them work on optional projects in the sewing lab. However, this year, I was limited on the number of days my students could use the sewing lab because I have a class that meets during the same period as our ninth-grade full-semester sewing course. The teacher for that course was kind enough to arrange her schedule to give me nine days in the sewing lab so we could complete the backpacks. I knew my students would want more sewing, so we moved our sewing to the regular classroom with exclusively hand-sewing techniques and supplies.

Before we got started on projects, I let my students know what supplies and tools I would make available to them and asked them to submit a plan for a project they could complete using hand sewing. Some students found patterns online, and some students designed their own creations. I had all the necessary hand-stitching tools, embroidery thread, stuffing, small zippers, buttons, and beads. Fortunately, I also had several boxes of all types and sizes of fabric that had been donated to the school. My classes worked on their hand-sewing projects the last three days before Christmas break (usually among the most chaotic days of the year in junior high). And yet things were relatively peaceful in my classroom.

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I feel that slow sewing has a calming, meditative effect. It was fantastic to look at my classes and see both boys and girls hunched over embroidery hoops or using other tools to hand make gifts, ornaments, or other small items. Each student chose what to make, which meant that the chosen project most likely fit each student’s ability level. Students were joyful and helpful as they worked. Most of them seemed excited to share what they had created.

The slow-sewing days were low stress for me, and I will likely incorporate them into future sewing units, even if the sewing lab has a higher availability. As always, when I reflected on these days there are things I would change for next time. Students had to wait in line to get a hand needle from me, partly because I wanted to make sure they got the right size and type of needle for the project they were doing, and partly because I wanted to keep an eye on the needles and make sure I got them all back at the end of class. Getting all the needles back was the trickiest part, as a few needles inevitably fell out of sight and ended up on the carpet every class period. Although I believe I found them all, I might incorporate a check-out system next time around—a trade-your-phone-for-a-needle option. They can get their phones back when their needle is safely returned.

Students also waited in line for embroidery floss if they wanted it, because I knew I needed to show them how to separate strands in the skene without making a giant, tangled mess. I would keep that process in place, but I would also streamline it by having the thread colors coordinated and wrapped on cardboard in advance. Overall, I’m happy with how the hand projects turned out, and even happier that I was able to allow my students so much choice with this activity while still meeting the standards with sewing techniques. Here are some examples of finished student work.

Each project showcases student personality!

A New Adventure

Hi! I’m Amy. My students call me Mrs. Coray.

Did you ever come to see something, quite suddenly, in a whole new way? As a teacher of family and consumer sciences and career and college awareness, I thought it odd that in spite of the ways I love my job, I am often restless as I help my students explore careers. “Ooh, that looks interesting!” I’ll think, as I look at new career options, “I wonder what that would require?”

I’ve actually tried on lots of careers in my lifetime. I’ve worked in a library, been an adoption caseworker, a music teacher, an elementary-school teacher in various grades, and owned my own sewing studio where I did alterations and custom sewing and taught sewing classes to students of all ages. True, I’ve been frustrated not to be able to settle on “one true calling,” even ashamed to feel restless at times when I love what I do.

It was actually because of my job that I came across Emilie Wapnick’s Ted Talk, “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” which took me completely by surprise. My life choices suddenly started to make sense.

I’m a multi-passionate creative. My current job as a junior-high family and consumer sciences teacher allows me opportunity to connect and to create. Besides working with students, I get excited about innovative, personalized, and project-based lesson planning that is inclusive for all students. That’s something I want to share!

Maybe you’re a parent trying to figure out how your teenager can stay engaged in learning either in-person or at home in online learning or a homeschool environment. Maybe you’re a teacher looking for lesson plan ideas or trying to navigate the world of personalized and project-based learning. I’ll have ideas and lesson plans to share with you.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by, and please feel free to comment! I look forward to getting to know you better.