Eleven Years of Reflection

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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David Wiesner's creative processes and philosophies of art and life have many implications for literacy and instructional coaches. Coaching is truly a creative act, which merits thought, planning, and polishing.

Eleven Years of Reflection

by Jan Miller Burkins

David Weisner's first Caldecott Award book

We at Literacyhead have been truly honored to collaborate with David Wiesner in developing this author study issue. I had several conversations with David as we worked through the development of the articles within the magazine, and he is at once self-assured and gracious. I have learned much in reading David's books, reading about David, and talking with him. Here are a few ideas that relate to coaching in classrooms and across schools.

Tuesday sketchbook layout

Develop a vision for the big picture.

Once he has an idea for a book, David begins each new project by sketching out the layout of the entire story. He conceptualizes the design of the pages, the images within the illustrations, and the location of the text from beginning to end. David "tries to find the visual design for the book that will help the reader read the book most easily."

Comparable big-picture thinking is worthwhile for coaches, as well. Whether we are envisioning a year of professional learning support with teachers, thinking through our coaching work month-by-month, or considering the ways instruction falls into a yearlong schedule of topics or genres, we can "sketch out" our plans from start to finish.

The exercise of making the inevitable decisions associated with such long-range planning will require us to think through potential barriers and highlight opportunities to refine our efforts in ways that capitalize on the incidental. Basically, planning really matters.

Tuesday dummy

Consider the details.

Once David sketches the new book in its entirety, he takes each frame and drafts it completely. This movement from conception through development involves thinking through each mark or brush stroke and making myriad decisions that impact the final product. This is where the book comes to life.

As coaches we work to translate our overall plans for teaching or learning into the realities of implementation, and we must reconcile our vision with the details that impact the final results. We will draft schedules and individual agendas, study texts and preview videos, all in an effort to make sure that, in the end, the "brush strokes" and composition of our professional learning, or whatever big work is demanding our attention, serve each other and the larger purposes.

Tuesday final draft

The final implementation will vary from the original plan, and that's okay.

From the draft of each page, David creates a final piece of art. Finalizing an illustration requires that David look closely at his work through the eyes of his readers. This is his last chance to make sure he is communicating his ideas to his audience, and he bends toward his ultimate goal, or even toward new ideas, rather than rigidly locking himself into his original vision. This is his last chance to consider the response of the reader as he or she turns each page. This first response to the next page happens twelve times with each book and David says it is the most important idea in writing a picture book. So even though he was working on the final painting for Tuesday, he was willing to veer away from his sketchbook layout when his instincts said at the last minute, "We need some pigs in here."

Of course, in the process of moving from envisioning to implementing a coaching endeavor, we can change our minds or follow opportunities, as David does with his books. Our finished products will not line up exactly with our original conceptions of them. The process, nevertheless, serves the purpose of pushing us to think of our work from all directions and to consider the implications of every decision we make. And still, in the final stages of developing a plan, we can realize, "Hey, we need some protocols in here" and move to make a sudden inspiration a final reality.

Early drawing by David Wiesner

Everyone doesn't have to understand what you are doing.

David Wiesner explained to me, "I became aware pretty early that what I was doing was different than what everyone else was doing." He knew that not everyone understood what he was doing, but that did not deter him, or make him second-guess himself.

Sometimes as coaches, we have to support teachers as they linger in places of dissonance. This can feel like confusion to teachers, and sometimes coaches will rush in to settle the unrest by offering prescriptions for action. We do not, however, have to always facilitate work that is smooth. It is instructionally sound to offer teachers opportunities to muck around in places they do not understand, and even for them to engage in processes for which we can see a big picture that has not yet come into focus for them.

The eleven-year image from June 29, 1999

Thinking work is real work.

David drew this picture of the bell pepper rising into the sky and he carried it around in his sketchbook for eleven years and thought about. It took this eleven years for him to arrive at the idea for June 29, 1999. Given the subsequent pleasure of his audiences and the public accolades that followed, not a minute of that thinking time was wasted.

David says that he can spend whole days just sitting in one place thinking about his work and that, to anyone who saw him, it would look as if he wasn't doing anything. Much of his creative work, or his "image genesis," however, grows from these reflective times, without which we would not have the wealth of Wiesner wonders to enjoy.

As a coach, a mother, a writer, and a teacher, the most important lesson I have learned from David Wiesner is that the time I spend thinking is valid work. Historically, I have been relatively generous with myself in terms of setting aside thinking time, but I still second-guess this use of time and experience some guilt when the in-the-head time collides with deadlines for tangible products.

After spending a fair amount of "in-the-head time" thinking about David's thinking, I have new license to provide myself thinking time as a core need rather than a guilty luxury. I have idea seeds that may well need nurturing for eleven years or more, and I am pleased to exhale and give myself renewed permission to wait and watch as they grow.

All images in this issue of Literacyhead are the property of David Wiesner.