Use Play Cards to Elevate Coaching and Teaching

Header - Taplin - Play Cards

Have you ever been compared to an athletic coach? Ashley Taplin believes there are some similarities between athletic coaches and ICs, and has even taken a play from their "playbook" by creating a cheat sheet of in-the-moment coaching and teaching tactics.


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s a basketball coach's wife, I enjoy hearing about last-minute preparations from my husband. One evening before a game, my husband showed me his "play card" of the various sets and plays he calls during a game, categorized by defense, offense, zone, specials, and more. He explained to me that this card was a way for him to have a quick reminder on hand of reliable plays to reference in the heat of the game.

As I walked back to the stands, I started to think: why don't we, as educators, use play cards for teaching? Creating one could bring more intentionality to planning and provide ideas for in-the-moment instructional decisions.

A game day card is a cheat sheet for you as a coach. It is the information you value most during a game. The goal is to develop an organized, easy to follow resource sheet. Given the emotion of a game it is nice to have something of value, and comfort, to refer to when you need to make a decision. It also guarantees that you will never forget what is most important to you. —Basketball Immersion

That night, I began creating my first coaching play card full of categorized instructional strategies. The tool was small, simple in design but held so much information, and I soon realized it could be personalized in many ways!

Classroom Prompts

Getting started with play cards requires you to think deeply about what topic or strategies you want to have pointers for handy. For my first instructional strategies play card, I chose six categories that I believe encompass a well-rounded lesson structure: grouping, lesson openers, student voice, movement, check for understanding, and lesson closures.

Taplin - Coaching Card 1

What would you add to your play card?

  • Grouping: includes strategies I have implemented in my own classroom and that I gathered from my experience creating and participating in professional developments.
  • Lesson Openers and Closers: gives teachers specific resources for two of the three signature practices of SEL instruction, "welcoming inclusion activities" and "optimistic closures," which can help to "create a climate and culture of safety, inclusion, and belonging, and to support strong, effective learning environments." This section includes ideas for check-in prompts, open-ended low-floor high-ceiling activities, and anticipating/reflection on learning targets and success criteria.
  • Student voice and movement: bring more personalization and engagement to the lesson.
  • Check for understanding: comprises a simple, yet powerful segment of formative assessment that can yield tremendous insight into student learning.

Finally, I added a section for "Questions to ask" as a way to help teachers develop their questioning skills, providing research-based prompts that deepen learning and increase rigor.

Resources for PD

While a teacher would use the above example for planning or in the classroom, as a coach I discovered I could use play cards while designing professional learning. The process of preparing play cards is a great way to organize what strategies I want to include as I craft the PD session. Afterward, I hand them out to participating teachers as a reference guide for them to take back to their campus, reminding them of our "game plan" from the day.

Pro tip: link out the play card items to further resources so teachers can continue their learning after a session!

A Guide for Coaching Conversations

Most recently, I created a card specifically for coaching conversations with prompts for reflection and interaction. To build this card, I referred to sentence stems from The EduCoach Survival Guide, questions from Michael Bungay Stanier's The Coaching Habit, and prompts from Episode 69 of Elana Aguilar's podcast.

Each section from the Educoach Survival Guide (seeking to understand, seeking to empower, seeking to influence, and seeking to nurture) provides sample stems a coach might lead with or ask as a follow-up within a conversation. The questions from The Coaching Habit are two of my favorites that I often ask to begin or continue a coaching conversation. And finally, the prompts from Elana Aguilar help a coach respond to a teacher when they say "I don't know how…".

Taplin -Coaching Card 2

Psst... click the image for a copy of the full card!

I have referenced each of these resources in my own coaching and think this card is helpful for fellow coaches to keep in their back pocket (literally!) and carry with them to coaching sessions.

Final note

I hope this has inspired teachers and coaches to craft some of their own play cards—individually or collaboratively—that are tailored to their personal needs. You don't need to list every strategy you've ever used, but rather make this a creative way to assist (basketball pun intended!) in implementing your instructional practices.

In the words of head coach, Kyle Julius, building a play card "creates a peaceful calm going into the game knowing we were well prepared and set up to play with a sharp focus and clear mind."

Want to learn more? Join me at ICC this summer, where I'll present a session, Using Play Cards to Enhance Coaching. There, we will unpack the strategies on the play cards, discuss ways you might implement one, and have time to begin to develop your own!

About our Guest Blogger

Ashley Taplin is a secondary math specialist in Texas. Prior to her current role, she taught high school math and was a department dean.

Ashley has a passion for both empowering teachers to build on their strengths and helping students make connections between what they’re learning. In addition to her role, she also delivers professional development, works with schools to implement PLCs and incorporate strategies in the classroom, and writes curriculum for her district. As part of her curriculum writing, Ashley has embedded SEL strategies within the math curriculum and helps guide teachers to make it a daily practice within the content.

Be sure to connect with her on Twitter and Instagram!

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Topics: Guest Blogger, PD, Your Coaching Toolbox, Questioning Techniques, Coaching Methodologies, In-the-Moment Coaching, Play Cards

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