What Shadra Strickland Taught Me About Literacy Coaching

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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For Shadra Strickland, the process of creating art is as important, perhaps even more important than the product. She has refined her planning and reflective processes as she has developed as an artist. Read to explore the ways reflective processes can support our work.

What Shadra Strickland Taught Me About Literacy Coaching

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Shadra Strickland Portrait by Jessica Hale

What Shadra Strickland Taught Me
About Literacy Coaching:
The Power of Process

Coaches support teachers in considering their work and their thinking. We set up processes for reflecting, for planning, for organizing. In fact, the daily work of coaches is more about process than product. For Shadra Strickland, the process elements of her illustration are the heart of her endeavors. Let's explore her processes by looking at the way she developed the illustrations for White Water, written by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein. We can easily connect to coaching the principles Shadra employs.

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Shadra's Sketchbook for White Water

Principle 1: Planning matters.

"When I was younger, I didn't do any preparatory work at all," Shadra explains. Now, however, she has many layers of preparation and thinking that help her develop ideas. She visits the location that she is painting, she carries ideas around in her head and works to make connections between them, and she sketches her ideas in order to refine them.

As coaches, we visit classrooms, we make and review notes, we make connections between what we know about teachers and what we know about teaching, and we constantly think about the ways we will approach a particular conversation, a classroom visit, or a demonstration lesson. Such planning and thought are the heart of our coaching endeavors.

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Shadra's Studio

Principle 2: You can't plan forever.

Some of us enjoy reflecting and connecting so much that we might never actually move forward. At some point, however, we have to make decisions and engage in action. Finding that balance between reflection and action is a challenge, and the tension between the two is a necessary element of creative work. After Shadra has visited, thought, sketched, and connected, she has to go into her studio, gather her supplies, and make art.

Similarly, after spending some time thinking about next steps with children, teachers, administrators, and whole schools, we have to move from deliberation to action, even though we are rarely certain that our choices are "right."

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Shadra's Book Mock-up for White Waters

Principle 3: Develop routines for evaluating your work.

This part of Shadra's process is particularly fascinating. When she has enough painting work completed to really develop a vision of the final product, she engages in intense evaluation of herself and her work. She makes a mock book, including the text, so that she can see exactly where her vision and the final reality are and are not connecting. This critical look at her work informs her revisions, much like our reflections after teaching or watching a lesson inform future lessons and conversations. Without this piece in our coaching process, we would not be able to see beyond the places where our inefficient habits or poor choices limit our view.

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Principle 4: The final product does matter.

"Awards are nice," Shadra says with a smile, when we mentioned the awards in her studio. The public validation of her work is valuable to her, providing momentum to help her generate more work and a reputation for excellence that allows her more creative freedom. While the principles in the unique creative process described here take up most of her time and energy, this process is ultimately what makes Shadra's work such an award-winning standout. If she didn't enjoy the process, she probably wouldn't be able to stick with the work when it gets as arduous as it often does.

For coaches and teachers, reflective processes are the heart of what we do, but outcomes also matter tremendously, especially when our actions impact whether or not children learn to read. So our goal is to help teachers develop self-extending systems that support them in creating environments that lead to positive outcomes for students. We can work hard at the process forever, but if we never ask "How is this impacting student achievement?" we fail as coaches.

Shadra Strickland Portrait
from Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson,
illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Principle 5: Move on.

I think this is the most valuable principle Shadra employs, and one we Type-A coaches could stand to adopt. Shadra has written several books that have not yet been published. She took each one through the processes of planning, drafting, revising, and reflecting, and she marketed them to publishers, adding up to many, many hours of work. The images in our Incidental Gallery are from her illustrations of the words from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," one of her as-yet unpublished books. When asked about how she feels about work that doesn't end up published, she quickly explains that she doesn't see any of it as a failure. If she had the opportunity to go back and reclaim the time she spent on the projects that never reached a public audience, she wouldn't change a thing.

"I learn from every project," she says without hesitation. So the time she invested in unpublished books may very well have taught her what she needed to learn in order to experience the artistic breakthroughs she experienced with Bird, which earned her the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award.

With coaching, we experience setbacks, or situations we might interpret as failures, but these can contribute to our later successes. Furthermore, the act of moving on is worth supporting with teachers, as grace with ourselves is a characteristic that leads to greater risk-taking and later success.

Shadra Strickland Portrait
Shadra with her illustrations for White Water

Putting it all together

At the end of the our interview, Shadra shared the finished images for White Water. They were tremendous, of course, each covered in sheets of tissue paper, the paintings were boxed for shipping to her publisher. Each image represented the final result of a long, thoughtful process.

Shadra didn't develop this process overnight. Similarly, our routines for thinking, teaching, supporting, and communicating with teachers will develop as we subject them to reflective scrutiny. Eventually, the thinking habits that work for us will establish themselves in our coaching procedures and, like Shadra Strickland, we will shape for ourselves the principles that guide our work.