We asked Kelly, one of our Writing & Instructional Coaches, to reflect on her experiences from the past year at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. The school is focused on developing students in different trades as an alternative to traditional schooling. It is also a turnaround school, meaning that it has been designated as Underperforming by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In the past, Kelly’s work has focused on writing in an academic classroom, but she has had to re-frame her teaching in a new light. 

by Kelly Knopf-Goldner

In the past I’ve supported math, science, history and English teachers. This year at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, I’ve gotten a crash course in vocational/technical education, adding several new subject areas to my roster: metal fabrication, plumbing, TV production, cosmetology, electricity, graphic communications, and hospitality.

Along the way, I have tried to stay true to my mission: to empower teachers with useful strategies and practices (and not add to their workload) and to help students learn content more deeply through authentic reading and writing strategies.



A Cosmetology teacher approached me because four of her new students were English level one learners. She was not sure how they could do any of the reading and writing tasks her native speaking students would do. The voc/tech teachers get to stay with their students for four years, so the first thought I offered was “Let’s take the long view since you’ll have them for a while. This is an opportunity to prioritize: what’s most important for them to know now and what can wait?” She was able to take a foundational chapter on the “Properties of the Hair and Scalp” and pinpoint exactly what students should learn first: the parts of the hair shaft and the four ways to analyze hair. We made a graphic organizer called a top down web for her students to use to take notes.

It goes from a general category to sub categories and is a very logical way to organize the kind of information presented in the textbook. We put sentence starters into each box and provided a space for students to draw a picture that would help them remember the information and terms. The teacher supplemented this work in other lessons with pictures and diagrams for students to label. She also brought in pine cones to show students how a healthy hair cuticle is closed up tight (smooth pine cone) while a damaged hair cuticle’s scales are opened (opened pine cone). She also made sure to say each new word out loud and have students repeat after her. The lesson worked well for all of her students because it was multi-modal and used all four literacies (listening, speaking, reading and writing).


In Metal Fabrication, the teacher and I planned a lesson for his new ninth graders, some of whom were also beginning English Learners. He put a simple metal tool tray in front of them and asked them, “What kind of tools would you need to make this tool tray?” They were told to study it closely.

He made it clear that he wasn’t looking for the actual tool names—just a type of tool (something that cuts, something that folds, etc.). Once they had generated all the categories of tools necessary, the teacher brought out the actual tools and placed them in front of the students. The students each had a handout with a picture of each tool, its name, and a space for them to explain what the tool does. They filled out the handout while the teacher explained what each tool was for. The two main objectives behind this lesson were 1) to activate student thinking prior to an input of information. If students inspected the tool tray closely, there was a lot they could figure out on their own. Then, when the teacher supplied the information, their brains were primed to receive it and attach meaning to it; 2) to make sure the lesson was multi-modal for students with different levels of English proficiency. The hands on observation/handling of the tray, the pictures, the writing, and the opportunity to talk with each other all offered instructional supports that ultimately benefited every student.


The Hospitality teacher wanted his older students to do more writing about real world hospitality issues. He told me he had shown students TV episodes where something goes wrong at a hotel or restaurant and the host comes in to solve the problem. I realized that problem-solution writing was a structure that made a lot of sense for his students and the content he wanted them to learn.

So he took a negative Yelp review of a local hotel and copied it for the students to read and analyze. He asked them questions about where, for example, in the guest cycle the client’s experience began to go in the wrong direction and what could have been done to reverse the trouble. After discussing the review and identifying all of the issues and how they should have been addressed, he had students write a Yelp response as if they were the hotel manager. The response had to follow the BLAST structureBelieve the guest, Listen to his complaint, Apologize for the mistakes, Satisfy the guest with some kind of offer, and Thank them for their feedback or patronage or both. The added benefit of the format of the response is that it forced students to think about their audience and purpose. As the hotel manager, they had to make amends with this guest, but they also had to salvage their hotel’s reputation on Yelp. Students were highly engaged in this real world problem solving task.


I have found that hydraulic braking systems are much easier to understand if, in addition to reading about them, you watch how they work on YouTube videos, draw them, and then explain them to someone else; there is an entire psychology behind fonts; parabolic microphones are the reason you can hear every grunt during a football game; and, replacing an over wired panel is very expensive. Among other things.

Whatever the teacher’s subject, I always start with the same first questions: What is your goal? What do you want students to know and be able to do? Once they tell me, we develop lessons, activities, and assignments that will help students achieve those goals, and I nudge teachers to use literacies that make sense for the given tasks.

I have also learned that the benefit of working at a vocational technical school is that you can get an oil change, a haircut, and lunch all under one roof!


Kelly Knopf-Goldner is the literacy coach at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. She works there three days a week with teachers across all disciplines to help them teach their content through literacy strategies that deepen student learning. She has been at WriteBoston since 2003 aside from a few years back in the classroom recently. Working in vocational and technical classrooms is a whole new learning experience for her—which she loves. “In order to understand hydraulic braking systems, I had to watch a lot of YouTube videos. Once I had a picture of the system in my mind, then reading about it in the book made a lot more sense,” she offered as an example. “That’s why a one size fits all approach to literacy doesn’t always work.” Teachers explain what they want students to know and do, and Kelly helps them figure out how to get students there; this collaboration is what she likes best about coaching.