Sunday, October 22, 2017

Coaching Cards

I teach algebra 1. Some units in algebra 1 are very skill heavy. The linearity unit, for example, has a lot of 'skills'. Same with quadratics. 

As I've been teaching, I've noticed that different students learn certain skills at different rates. For a particular skill, some students 'get it' relatively quickly while other students need more time. However, for a different skill, the groups can switch and students that previously 'got it' need more time while others can master the skill in less time.

If you're a teacher, you know this. And the solution is differentiation. But I've always struggled with differentiation. Like, I have to plan the entire lesson and then plan another lesson for the kids that finish early?? Some lessons or activities lend themselves well to differentiation, and in those cases I do it.

A couple years ago I came up with a participation structure that helps me differentiate. I don't use this participation structure the time, but for certain skill-y lessons (like the linear skills I'm teaching right now) this structure works great.

I call it a coaching card. The basic idea is that as students finish a practice set of problems, they call me over to check their work. If their works looks good, I give them a card with coaching sentence frames. However, more important than the card, is the quick one-on-one conversation I have with the student. I make clear: their job IS NOT to give answers; their job is to ask good questions. I suggest they do not carry their correct work around with them because it will make it feel like an answer key. And being a coach is not about giving answers. It is about asking good questions.

However, that can be a lot for a 9th grader to take on. So I provide the card with sentence frames for students to use when they coach other students.

Coaching Card for graphing linear functions. 

Coaching Card for graphing exponential functions. 
Coaching Card for sketching parabolas.


I really only use this for specific times when I want students to practice a skill like graphing linear functions, factoring quadratics, or graphing exponential functions.  Other times, I will do activities where students work in groups and the goal is conceptual understanding. However, for those times when I want students to practice a skill, and I'm not sure what to do with the students that finish early, the Coaching Card is the right tool.

Timing and Structure

The skill activity is usually 4 or 5 questions. The activity, including the coaching, doesn't take more than 20 minutes. I"m not using students to teach the lesson! The shelf-life for the coach structure is about 7-10 minutes. At least in my class. After that, students crack the code and the quality of the coaching drops pretty quick.

As students finish the activity, I give them a card, have a quick coaching conversation where I stress they are to ask questions not give answers, and I tell them to wait until I direct them to get up. Once I have about 4-5 coaches, and the entire class has worked for at least 5 minutes without help, I direct the coaches to get up and I let the class know that there are students available to help them.

How I Make a Coaching Card

I like to use Coach Cards for short, focused skill based lesson segments. Like a warm-up on writing linear functions from different representations. Or a practice problem set of 5 problems on rewriting standard form linear functions in slope-intercept form. 

I like to make the sentence frames specific to the activity. So the activity has to be focused in terms of skills so that the sentence frames can be focused. I create the card with the assumption that a 9th grader has never coached before and needs a 'script' of what to say in this situation. Because, to me, in a coach/coachee situation, informal, conversational language will not be helpful. Students need to use precise, consistent, and direct language in a coaching conversation. 


This activity definitely raises issues of status. While different students accel at different skills, there is always a handful of students that struggle with stills as well as a handful of students that tend to learn new skills quickly. Thus, a few students are always tutors and a few students are always tutees.

That being said, I only use this structure about once or twice a month. And the tutees seem to appreciate the peer coaching--otherwise it is tough for me to get to everyone that needs help.

In the photos from my classroom, you can identify the tutors as the person with the brightly colored paper--again, this becomes a token of status...not sure how I feel about that. 

Final Thoughts

Again, I only use this once or twice a month--so not very often. And I only use it for short, focused skill based lesson segments. 

A warm-up of 4 problems that asks students to graph linear functions. Great. Or a warm-up with a handful of problems that ask students to write linear functions from different representations--perfect for Coaching Card.  A worksheet of review questions from the linearity unit. I wouldn't use Coaching Card for that. The reason being is that I like to make sentence frames that are specific to the skill. If there are 5 different skills in the worksheet, I think it could feel overwhelming to a 9th grade student that is coaching for potentially the first time. 

Also, at least for me, students get informal with this structure pretty quickly. Really, for about the first 7 minutes, there is a magic feeling in the air. Students are earnestly helping other students by asking really good questions. They are not just giving answers. And, since these are 9th graders, that magic feeling wears off, reality kicks in, and I've got to remind Kevin not to argue with Aldo about which team won badminton in 1st period PE. But it's beautiful while it lasts!

Linear Functions Coaching Cards

Graphing Exponentials Coaching Cards

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