Free Solo: A Coaching Story

I had a coaching moment today that reaffirms everything I believe about the kinds of learning experiences that kids and adults deserve.

Flash back a couple of weeks. Two fourth grade teachers and about 50 kids are gathered around the meeting area. The teachers are launching a new unit—something out-of-the-box we’ve been planning together. We are “transforming the task,” elevating the thinking work of a typical Literary Essay Writing unit into an interdisciplinary project in which kids will be making video Op/Docs (Opinion Documentaries) based on questions worth debating in their Historical Fiction book clubs.

We have two mentor “texts”: the trailer for the documentary Free Solo is our nonfiction narrative. The New York Times Op/Doc, “What if he Falls? The Terrifying Reality Behind Filming Free Solo” will serve as a model for what groups will be creating in the second half of the unit. In the opening to the Op/Doc, one of the filmmakers talks about how their initial goal of a character study evolved into so much more by the end of the project. That is exactly what we are attempting—we want to move students from the land of literary essay as character study (e.g. Fox is a good friend because. . .) to the more compelling thinking and argument work that happens in the real world when people study and discuss fictional and nonfiction narrative.

Sometimes coaching feels like free soloing. You are looking up at a worthy (and often overwhelming) goal like “transforming the task.” You have an idea of where you’re headed, but the path is often unclear. It’s not about motivation—everyone wants to get there. You’re searching for those toeholds and cracks that will support the weight of the complex work you’re trying to do together as you chart your way up the side of that mountain.

As I watch this team launch the unit together, I have goosebumps. They co-facilitate, making connections between the Reading and Writing units kids have engaged with all year in a way that feels like, of course, this next step is the next step. They ground everything in real world examples, in the kinds of thinking that readers and writers do.

Kids are transfixed by the two videos. There is a ring of boys around the outside of the group, on their feet because they just can’t stay seated in their excitement. I don’t even think they understand that they’ll actually be making videos yet. It doesn’t matter—they’re hooked by the challenge and relevance of it all.

There is this incredible moment—when every student physically leans forward at the same time (foomp)—it is this communal, non-verbal agreement: We’re. All. In.

And. . . I’m crying. I can’t help it. It’s so emotional in that moment, to see all the planning—all the muddiness and the inspiration and the legitimate fear that it might not work the way we hoped—to see the powerful impact of that challenging adult learning on kids.

A student catches a glimpse as I wipe my eyes. “Oh, Ms. Ellerman is scared he’s [Alex, the climber] going to fall!” she whispers.

Not even a little bit. I can tell we have found our way up.

Over the next couple of weeks, kids collaborate with their book clubs and use their reader’s notebooks as tools to capture and expand on their thinking. They write and talk character theories, what makes their characters complicated, themes, perspectives of minor characters. They mine their books for text evidence to support their ideas. They do quick writes, they write long. They flash draft literary essays based on ideas they deem most worth talking and writing about. All of this thinking work is preparing them for the next stage of this unit (the part we aren’t really sure how to teach yet).

In a PLC team meeting, a teacher asks an important question: How do we move kids from this (excellent, deep) thinking work they’re doing around theories and themes to the (even more complex) thinking work of choosing a compelling question to examine in an Op/Doc? And then (even scarier) what might it actually look like when kids start writing one?

Great question. None of us have actually done this before. . . 

We consider: What might our own process look like, if we were planning for an Op/Doc? We think through how we might approach this same task with our current read aloud, Number the Stars. This text has been a touchstone for our planning and thinking over the first part of the unit; it helps us to play out how the choice point questions we can easily generate as proficient readers might be connected to the earlier character/theme work. We try to anticipate how our fourth graders might need support connecting these dots. 

After lots of discussion, we decide to circle back to the two mentor “texts” that opened the unit. These are the source of our vision (and of kids’ rapt attention), so it makes sense to use them as guides as we think this out.

We decide to begin by asking students to re-watch the trailer for Free Solo, noticing possible themes and character theories that are suggested. We predict that this will be easy for kids to do; they have lots of experience with this level of task at this point. (We are right.)

Then we will re-watch the Op/Doc, considering how its central question (What if he falls?) was inspired by choices the characters had to make in the original documentary and which connect to those themes and character theories. This is the leap we need kids to make—identifying those choice points for characters in their own books that are debatable and worth talking about from multiple perspectives. Choice points that can be analyzed through the lens of the character and theme work they have primed the pump by engaging in over recent weeks.

We also know that students will need to understand how Op/Docs work, how they are organized around that central question to provoke thinking in the audience. They will need their own toeholds as they began planning for the Op/Docs they will write together as book clubs.

So today. . . as teachers give this a go with kids, it feels like the best way to provide coaching feedback might be to engage side by side as a learner in the thinking work. I pull up a chair beside a couple of students, and I consider the questions being asked of us in the mini-lesson:

  • What do we notice about how this Op/Doc is organized?
  • What is the thinking work these filmmakers had to do to plan for this?

As an adult learner, it is challenging and compelling to re-watch the Op/Doc with these questions in mind. My pen flies across my writer’s notebook, and I am excited to come back together to talk about what we notice. The kids have the exact same response. The work is compelling, and knowing that they will be creating Op/Docs themselves, they are motivated to find out how Op/Docs “work.”

An important realization for us during the planning process: this is an Op/Doc out in the real world. It’s not neatly organized into five paragraphs. (That does not exist, if you happen to be looking.) And yet. . . there are transferable attributes of the genre that fourth graders with experience planning for and writing literary essays are able to  notice and name.

We discover (and are not surprised) that kids can talk about what the writers are doing to make their purpose and opinion clear. They can point out how facts, details, and mini-stories are used as evidence to support those opinions. They can read the mentor video like a writer.

For example, in the “introduction” to the piece—the first two minutes—kids notice:

  • The Op/Doc starts by explaining who Alex is and what free soloing is. We [the audience] understand what a big challenge he is attempting and why the filmmakers are making a documentary about it. It’s important to start an Op/Doc with this kind of background information, so your audience isn’t confused.
  • There are quotes from Alex and the filmmakers. Right away, we can see multiple points of view that will be represented in the Op/Doc. This pulls us in.
  • There is a very clear central question: “Is it ethical to film somebody as they’re risking their life?” This sets up an expectation in the audience for what will be explored in this piece.
  • After the big question, there is a series of follow up questions that will be expanded upon later: How much precaution is enough? Is he more likely to fall when we are there, because we are a distraction, than he is when he is there by himself? These will become sections of the “body” of the Op/Doc.

The fourth grade students notice all of these things. The teacher makes space for them to write, talk, and share out. She paraphrases their thinking, but she isn’t inserting her own. (She doesn’t need to.) She demonstrates genuine fascination with their ideas and with the level of their talk. 

At one point during the debrief of the intro, the teacher acknowledges, “This is uncharted territory for all of us.”

I love the transparency and the vulnerability in that statement. Consider what that (very intentional) instructional move communicates to kids about what it means to be a learner (and a leader of learners). It sets up this work as authentic, challenging, and worthy of study by the entire community of learners—including the adults.

Again—goosebumps. This is what transforming the task is all about. It happens when we first transform the learning experience for adults by making it feel safe to remove the ropes and strike out for the summit together. The fear of falling becomes less scary than the fear of not trying. The collaboration with this team has been powerful; none of us could have accomplished this alone. I am so appreciative to have the opportunity to work side by side with educators who are willing to take these kinds of professional risks—supporting each other along the way. It’s messy, but it’s so rewarding to experience this level of growth for all learners.

Like Alex Honnold, the first free soloist of El Capitan, we are experiencing the adrenaline rush (or the happy tears) that come from transforming the learning experience for kids (and for ourselves). And once we have that experience, we can’t go back.

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