Wednesdays and Refrigerator Walls: The Impact of Arts Education in a Culture of High-Stakes Assessment

I remember it was always on Wednesdays.

That’s when the all-purpose room in the basement of Marlowe Elementary transformed from cafeteria and gymnasium to art room. I couldn’t multiply two digit by three digit numbers. I was always picked last for the kickball team (“picked” meaning assigned a team because no 5th grader in their right mind was going to voluntarily choose the kid who would strike out in 30 seconds). My handwriting was horrendous, made worse as my left hand smeared my cursive attempts across the page.

Wednesdays were a different story – because I could draw. With colored pencils and paintbrushes at my disposal, I was a different person 45 minutes a week. Mrs. Altman, the art teacher, heaped on the praise when I finished my creations, and I believed every word of it. On Wednesdays, I’d brave the bullies at the back of the school bus, the social studies test I probably didn’t study for, and sitting by myself on the jungle gym at recess – because, for 45 minutes, I was the girl who draws. Art class gave me a sense of purpose.

Fast forward from 1993 to 2017. I went from the girl who draws to the teacher who draws. After a short stint as a communications major, I decided in college to switch to education because I wanted to be a part of people’s stories and successes instead of reporting on them. My aunt was a first grade teacher for 37 years, and memories of how she creatively reached her students – whether through Care Bears or Happy Meal toys – inspired me to make learning a fun, empowering experience, so kids would want to learn and feel they belonged in this crazy, upside down world.

For 17 years, I used many creative endeavors to fight against the increasing hyper focus on assessment, data collection, and progress monitoring in the elementary classroom. Slowly and steadily, each year I was losing myself, as it became next to impossible to be the teacher I wanted to be with the growing demands of test preparation. The worst part was what I saw it doing to my students – the ones with the bad handwriting, questionable study skills, or paddling against the current in math. Labels assigned to kids based on academic performance don’t show their talents outside of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper or clicked answers on a multiple choice test.

I felt as defeated as that fifth grader sitting on the jungle gym, until the last day of school 2017. As I packed up my classroom for the summer, I carefully took down my “refrigerator wall,” where my students hung drawings and knickknacks they made throughout the year. An illustration of a pencil versus a Sharpie, a pencil portrait of my cat Frankie, a sketch of a fighter jet – by the end of the year, the refrigerator wall was an eclectic mix of the talents and interests in my classroom.

The last masterpiece I gingerly took down was a strikingly accurate portrait a student had drawn of myself – right down to the hair part and zebra print cardigan. The student who drew it was a lot like I had been in school – left out, left handed, and looking for a way to fit in the adolescent landscape.

In that moment I had no answers for the growing lack of creative autonomy in the general education classroom, but I did know my next step as an educator.

Where testing and skill recovery programs provide mixed solutions to increasing academic progress, art education consistently shows its ability to increase critical thinking and problem solving skills desired of students. The integration of all subjects allows for the reinforcement of the materials taught in the classroom, all while improving brain function through painting, cutting, weaving, and a multitude of other experiences. Memory building and fine and gross motor skills are developed through art in a way that worksheets can’t compete.

Every child has an invisible sign above their head that reads “Make me feel important.” Many children, especially those with special needs, get to experience a level of success and pride in the art room that won’t be replicated with test scores. The simple act of giving a child something to look forward to and the feeling of accomplishment from creating something out of nothing is a greater equalizer in education than any leveled reader or tiered instruction.

In the aftermath of COVID, we are not only addressing learning gaps but also profound grief. The emotional and social fallout from the pandemic is as great a crisis if not more than the impact on academic instruction. Kids are in as much need of stress relief and coping skills in this moment in time as they are skill building. In an art room, there is hope, peace, and healing intertwined with the joy of making something beautiful in the broken world. They don’t just learn to make art – they learn how to feel and heal.

We can do better in the post-pandemic era of education than we have in the past with an ever increasing reliance on statistical data to drive instruction. The creative, imaginative pursuits in the classroom will captivate student interest in learning and build the empathy needed for tomorrow’s leaders. It is my hope to bring that to eduction as an art teacher – so that every day feels like a Wednesday.

Erin Sponaugle is a National Board Certified Teacher, NNSTOY member, and children’s book author-illustrator. She has taught for 19 years and is the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. Erin currently teaches art at Tomahawk Intermediate School in Hedgesville, West Virginia. She is the host of the Next Chapter for Teachers Podcast, a show focused on teacher self-improvement. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_sponaugle, on Instagram @nextchapterpress, and read her blog at

Literacy as a Tool for Humanity

I grew up as the 4th of 5 children in a home where my parents were avid readers of the daily newspaper.  Reading was part of the culture in my home.  Everyone read.  Sunday mornings went something like this.  My brothers fished out the sports section.  My mother read the obituaries and the editorials.  My father fussed at my brothers about the sports section and shared the editorials with my mother. I was happy to co-read the comics with my youngest brother and as I got older and more sophisticated, the food, arts and entertainment sections were all mine.  I also read books.  Picture books and then novels.  I spent summers making pilgrimages to my public library 2-3 times a week.  This is the way it was for me.  And like most children, I thought this was the way it was for all other children.

When I started teaching, in the neighborhood where I grew up, I learned that was not the case.  I also was shocked to discover that children didn’t live in homes filled with books.  My naivety shocked my system.  I single-handedly made it a mission of my teaching to fill my students’ school days with books.  They would read independently, in pairs, and I would read aloud to them, every single day.  I understood the power of reading to fill the vocabulary gap.  I understood the power of reading as windows so students can see different perspectives.  I understood the power of reading as mirrors so students can see themselves in text.

Over the years, I taught reading language arts from second grade to middle school.  They taught me that they all enjoyed being read to and talking about the characters and the story line, what they had in common with those characters and what was so different.  They shared what they would do if they were in the characters’ shoes.  There were moments of cheers and disdain, of sadness and laughter.  I welcomed it all.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein showed my students how people allow themselves to be used by others.  My then second graders shouted how the boy was not a friend because friends share, not just take.  The novels A Taste of Blackberries and The Bridge to Terabithia provided a safe way to discuss death.  As always, the children would teach me through their resiliency of personal traumas of extended family and all the rituals that their cultures hold dear.  The Hundred Penny Box, with the close-knit relationship between the young boy and his father’s great aunt, and all the complexities of the relationship with his mother spun a tale of family drama that my students were able to pick up on instantly.   A surprising novel, How to Steal a Dog, gave a close up look into a family in transition after divorce.  The children in the story struggled with how their once close friends treated them differently as their lives became less and less comfortable.  As children do, my students were focused on themselves when they were suddenly jolted to think about others.

These texts all offered something different but something the same.  A shared experience as an entry point into conversation.  The listener/reader will all enter in a different place.  This was true for me twenty years ago, ten years ago and still today; people are more alike than different and reading books demonstrates that in varied ways.

In the era of high-stakes teaching and accountability, my administrators were supporters of my using books to teach.  The texts were robust and as I taught, I layered a combination of standards in each lesson.  In my situation, my students’ performances surpassed expectations as I taught to a higher level than the state standards.  My autonomy was not easily earned but I did it teaching novels.

As my career has taken me from the classroom to literacy coaching and beyond, I still push the power of books and reading aloud, even with secondary students.  When I have an opportunity to work with teachers, I share this with them by sharing a few teasers from a few of my favorite books.  What this reading teacher ultimately learned is how culture, humanity and empathy is truly shared through literacy.  I do hope you join me in these discoveries.

A Foundation of Trust

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” -Stephen R. Covey

Teaching is a vulnerable act. The willingness to go into a classroom each day with a prepared lesson and engage with children is a very real definition of courage. This vulnerability is heightened when a teacher is trying to get better at his/her/their craft.

Enter the instructional coach.

As a former coach of teachers and a current consultant to school and system leaders, I have learned about the risks of collaborating with adults to get better at the craft of teaching. It is hard by itself, but is impossible without trust.

I think perhaps what is both equitable and challenging about teachers learning to improve their practice is that when they are being coached, they enter into a similar power imbalance experienced by their own students. It can feel disconcerting. This is one of the reasons why trust is even more important in the coach-teacher relationship.

Trust is the foundation for any significant improvement between people. When it is broken, progress is stalled. When it is strengthened, unbelievable gains can happen. Here are at least three tips to build a culture of trust within a coaching relationship:

  1. Make sure that you are clear with your intentions in coaching, what your biases may be and the directives you have been given. In a school environment, there always may be a level of confidentiality that exists due to pending personnel decisions, but being as honest as possible with people you are supporting is vital. It is always up to your discretion as to what you choose to share, however, just know that the level of your honesty will almost always be connected to the degree of the trust you have with the person you are coaching. Low honesty; low trust account. Low trust account; low progress. Low progress; low outcomes (for students and adults).
  2. Radical Candor. If you see bad instruction, how willing are you to communicate it? How clearly can you communicate it? Candor is complex and is hardly discussed, but it is perhaps an approach that can lead to even greater levels of trust. If I can trust you to be candid – not harsh – then I can start to believe that you have my best interests at heart and will not lie to me about something I am doing that is harmful (which again goes back to tip number one).
  3. One of my core values is clarity. You may have heard the expression that clear is kind. I think it is also true that being clear helps to build credibility. It can help the teacher better understand the changes that he/she/they need to make and the rationale for the particular suggestions. I have heard it said that what people often interpret as resistance is in actuality a response to a lack of clarity.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at Towson University, I had a powerful teacher my sophomore year. In fact, he was a (football) coach. Coach Phil Albert taught me content, but also about life. He had so many sayings. I still remember him saying “keep your shoulder pad down,” as we left his class. I trusted him because he seemed to connect his content and his message with who he believed we could be if we applied both the content of the course and his beliefs about life into our daily habits. I trusted him because he was consistently clear about the greatness he saw inside of us.

I recently learned of his passing. When a great coach passes, his teachings forever live on. In fact, the words of a great coach become the life messages you grow to trust more and more as time goes on. And so, I leave you with a quote from Coach Albert that I have come to trust in that can also help build a culture of deep trust between a coach and a teacher:

“What you compromise to keep, you eventually lose anyway.”

Do not compromise your commitment to building trust with those you support.

The Changing Face of Literacy

A literate life? What does that mean? Perhaps at its most basic, it means having enough knowledge to do what you need to do. If you are using a computer, a certain level of computer literacy is needed. But what does it mean in the realm of reading and writing? What does it mean to be literate in these areas?

As a fan of the Little House on the Prairie Series, I often think of literacy as it is presented in the many episodes. Students are seen practicing their spelling on the board or reading from a basal reader to the whole class.  Oftentimes, they are writing to a whole class prompt. They’re growing their literacy. But our world is changing. The areas in which students needs to be literate need to change as well. The information coming to them has multiplied through many different sources, such as Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, etc. These sources bombard our students with information.

But have our students learned to think critically about the information that is coming to them? Have we prepared our students to be critical consumers and to evaluate what they see before assuming it is correct or accurate?  Young learners need to be more critical purveyors of knowledge. They no longer can assume that what they’re reading is truth. They must decipher, from multiple sources, what is accurate and inaccurate – a task most adults find difficult to do.

So, what does it mean to be literate as a 21st century learner?  It is critical to teach foundational skills, to not make light of their importance. These skills are necessary in today’s society. But armed with those skills alone, our young scholars will not be able to effectively critique what they have written and read and consider multiple sources that may present varying perspectives.

This author would argue that young people need to understand that there will be conflict. But what should happen at that juncture? Literature serves as a context for helping students view the world either as a mirror or window.  Emily Style, who works for the National SEED Project, describes a mirror as a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity. A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone else’s experience. It is critical to understand that students cannot truly learn about themselves unless they learn about others as well. It involves reflection.

Chimamanda Adichie, in the Ted Talk “Danger of a Single Story”, explains the importance of providing a window for students using the context of literature to help them see multiple perspectives on any given topic. In other words, give students the experience of many stories. Literature teaches about tolerance, to learn about someone else’s experiences, and why they hold the perspectives that they do. It teaches open-mindedness to understand that perspectives come from sets of experiences and that the more experiences gained, the more likely we are to accept others for their differences. This allows celebrating others for their differences and does not allow limited understanding to cause misunderstanding.

Another literacy to consider is ethical literacy. This does not mean imposing educator ethics on students. It means teaching students to use what they understand about perspectives and apply this knowledge to situations in which core values conflict. This empowers learners to participate and initiate change in a global society.

Literacy is a simple word, but its meaning is complex. Jess Lifshitz, during her Innovative Education in Vermont podcast, shares her understanding of the seminal text by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. In reference to literary skills she quotes, “That we can’t teach these isolated skills to kids and then expect kids to go out into the world and make the kind of changes that we know are needed. And that we hope for them to make.”  The challenge for educators is to use literacy and literature to give students many opportunities to look in the mirror and out of the window to create intelligent, critical thinking citizens.

Laura Drake is a Wyoming native of 55 years. She has been in education for 32 years teaching K-6 Regular and Special Education, as well as serving as an instructional coach. Drake has a master’s degree in literacy, is a National Board Certified Teacher (with renewal), the 2013 Wyoming Teacher of the Year, and has her Ed.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. She is now retired and is pursuing her  cake decorating business, as well as doing peer review work for our department of education. She also aspires to teach at the collegiate level.


Crafting Spaces of Trust: The Power of Instructional Coaching

Many of us have ventured into secret sharing spaces in our schools. These are the places we go as educators when we don’t quite understand a concept or when the objective of a recent professional development was lost on us. It’s where we go when we aren’t quite sure how to embed the new learning into our practice. I’ve been in professional development and heard myself say, “Ok. Yes, I understand that.” But in private, I might say to a friend, “I don’t have a clue what they want us to do. What in the world were they talking about, and how do I actually do it?” Although asking for help should never be seen as a negative, the culture of the profession screams at us to smile and say, “I’m fine” and then go figure it out. No one wants to admit that they’re the teacher who is still working to improve their practice. However, this is exactly the thing we all need to embrace. We have work to do. We’re working to be better teachers.

But why do teachers sometimes seek growth in private rather than reach out to an instructional coach whose role is to help them to improve their practice? Sometimes teachers lack the trusting relationship with an instructional coach that is absolutely vital to fostering and sustaining good practice. Sometimes talented instructional coaches fail at truly shifting teachers’ practice because they have been given limited time in the school day to work with teachers. And the times I’ve seen instructional coaching have almost no impact on instructional practice were instances in which coaching was used as an evaluative gotcha game or tied solely to negative feedback. It fails when the coach is not skilled at relationship building and facilitating adult learning.

As a teacher, I didn’t always trust that instructional coaches knew what I needed or had the time to help, so I found what I needed either on my own or through colleagues. And while that collaboration was impactful and essential, no teacher should be forced to shift their practice by visiting colleagues’ classrooms after school or by having quick conversations in the hallway or at the copy machine. Therefore, as a coach, I am spurred by my experiences as a teacher to do everything I can to build positive relationships with teachers, the type of relationships that allow me to be a trusted partner in teachers’ instructional growth.

In my work, I keep three principles in mind.

Don’t be a human red pen.

I never want to be a walking red pen on a teacher’s practice. No teacher wants to spend time with anyone who only points out flaws. Even if a teacher needs to do quite a bit of work, I try to highlight the positive things that are happening in the classroom and celebrate those as often as I can. When I need to call attention to instruction that requires improvement, I do so in a way that is respectful and not authoritarian. I share stories of times I struggled as a teacher. I guide them to call attention to the ways they hope to grow, and we start our planning there. Teachers trust coaches who can be fair, balanced, and human in their support.

Being a mere spectator isn’t helpful.

Good data can be gathered by observing a teacher’s practice, but if instructional coaching only consists of observing and then giving feedback and then observing again, a huge opportunity to truly coach is likely being missed. Going into the classroom to teach a segment of a lesson or to co-teach the lesson builds trust with the teacher. Building tools and planning together, reviewing student work, and building student activities as a team builds a partnership. Coaching is not about telling; it is about showing how.

Be careful with reporting

The method we use to document a teacher’s growth or lack thereof is so critical to the coaching relationship. Whether or not the coaching role is evaluative, documentation either for a principal or for the teacher’s reflection should be focused on the plan going forward. Again, balance is key. Documentation should always be used to capture praise and to cement a plan.

Ultimately, good instructional coaches can help shift the culture in the school by being a present partner in the growth that occurs in classrooms. When feedback and observations are paired with effective planning and modeling, teachers are much more willing to take instructional risks that lead to growth for their practice and their students’ learning. They are much more likely to ask a question out loud and welcome the assistance and support of an instructional coach.

Monica Washington is the Director of Inclusive and Responsive Educational Practice and an instructional coach for BetterLesson supporting teachers and education leaders across the country as they make positive shifts in instruction and leadership. A decorated educator of twenty-four years, Monica has received honors and awards from a wide variety of organizations for her leadership, advocacy, and classroom instruction. She is a 2015 Milken Unsung Hero Fellow and a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. In addition to instructional coaching, Monica supports educators through workshops, speaking engagements, and blogging. Monica is passionate about educational equity, and she serves as a Leading Educator Ambassador for Equity for the Education Civil Rights Alliance. Additionally, she serves on the Board of Directors for the National Education Association Foundation and The National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Monica is the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year.

Building Bridges through Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaches walk in two worlds simultaneously, serving as bridges between the turbulent waters of active teaching practice and the steady mountain of pedagogical theory.

One of the most significant barriers to building a culture of trust is that, in American culture, excellence and growth can be considered mutually exclusive.  Coaches face the challenge of addressing a duality that challenges American perceptions of outstanding professional skill: it is possible, and indeed necessary, to be a wonderful teacher and determined to improve professionally.

Educational professionals face, on a daily basis, an infinite learning curve.  Even superhuman teachers can continue to grow indefinitely, stretching towards the zenith of perfection, without ever reaching the apex of the curve.  Because learning is a dynamic endeavor, and because classrooms are shifting mosaics of persons, ideas, and circumstances, educators will always encounter novel challenges, barriers, and imperfections in our work.

How can instructional coaches build a culture of trust that affirms the confidence of the professionals they support – while working continuously towards that zenith of perfection?  Here are a few steps that can help.

  1. Know your role. Instructional coaches can serve as supporters, cheerleaders, evaluators – the permutations of coaching roles are truly vast.  It’s important to have clarity about what exact role you have to play in your work with educators.  Lack of clarity can easily undermine trust.
  2. Track your relationship. Just as educators work over months and years to cultivate productive relationships with students, coaches need to take time to observe, understand, and nurture our relationships with educators. Consider perspective-taking exercises like journaling to get a glimpse of how the people with whom you work view your presence in their practice.
  3. Read the room. There are days when my students walk into my classroom and I can tell immediately that I will need to adapt my lesson to meet them where they are academically, socially, or emotionally.  We are living through unprecedented and challenging times, and educators mirror the times in many of the same ways that students do.  There are days when the educators I support are just not ready for the leaps and bounds I’ve prepared – and days when they are ready for a larger leap than I imagined.  Instructional coaches need to have the flexibility to shift to meet the needs presented to them.
  4. Focus on the bright spots. Asset-based inquiry provides a structure for instructional coaching that elevates and reinforces what teachers do well.  When planning teacher-led learning walks at my school, I’ve asked teachers to choose a shining star of a lesson to show off to colleagues as an example of outstanding pedagogy.  Volunteers invite teacher teams to visit specific classes that to serve as exemplars.  Visiting teacher teams then take time to discuss what best practices they observed and might apply in their own classes.  This approach can set the foundation for a strong culture of trust that will eventually support critical inquiry practices.
  5. Lighten the load. Think creatively about how your presence in a teacher’s work could free up their time, energy, and cognition for professional growth.  Teach a section of a class, run photocopies, or help with assessment tasks so that a teacher with whom you work can take a deep breath and study a technique or approach that sparks their passion, giving them the lift needed to bring their practice to the next level.

A creative, compassionate coach can be an incredible asset in the work of an educator.  A strong culture of trust provides the supports for that bridge between practice and theory, allowing coaches to walk in both worlds, bringing the best of both to the teachers they serve.

Dr. Megan Olivia Hall is the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. A National Board Certified Teacher, she teaches science and agriculture, and coaches anti-racist social-emotional instruction at Open World Learning Community in St. Paul Public Schools.