Valerie Bolling carefully observes teachers to help them increase student performance as an instructional coach in Greenwich Public School’s middle schools in Greenwich, Conn. She also writes books for children, including Let’s Dance!, Together We Ride, and her latest, Ride, Roll and Run: Time for Fun! PW spoke with Bolling about how she uses her skills and intuition in her roles as coach and author, and why she hopes her readers will put her books down after reading them and go outside.
How long have you been in education? What grades have you taught?
I’m in my 30th year as an educator. In the past, I taught second, fourth, and fifth grade. Grade five was the grade that I taught the most. Then, I moved on to middle school where I taught eighth grade English. After that, I became an instructional coach for middle school teachers. I’ve taught 17 years in the classroom, and I’m in my 13th year as an instructional coach.
What is your role as an instructional coach?
I work mainly with teachers, though I also meet with administrators to determine how I can best support them and their teachers with building program goals and initiatives. I collaborate with them on instruction to help maximize achievement for students. Together, we look at learning through the students’ lenses. We ask questions including: “What is it that my students could be doing better?” “What are my hopes and dreams for my students?” Then, we explore the answers such as “I want my students to become better writers, listeners—or to challenge themselves more,” or “I want to help my students create their own questions—and to respond to them from different perspectives.” We call these “coaching partnerships” where we’re centered around a particular goal. We’ll do some work related to that goal, assess the work at the end, and talk about how it went. The work is always grounded in student work, and is both content and process-based.
What have you enjoyed the most about teaching and coaching? What has been the greatest challenge?
When I was a classroom teacher, interacting with the students was always the highlight of my day. It was hearing their stories and questions, and learning from them. I always told them, “I’m not the only teacher in the classroom.” We taught and learned from each other. I also loved seeing my student successes. In the classroom, I was big on having my students enter writing contests since writing is so much of what I love to do. Seeing my students receive awards for their writing—but even more importantly, helping them turn into confident writers—means a great deal. As an instructional coach, it’s the work that I do with the teachers—seeing them experience their successes and be excited about them that gives me the most joy. As for the greatest challenge, it has been dealing with Covid. While we’re focused on making sure students are OK, we also need to make sure teachers are, too.
Have you always been a writer? When did you start writing for children?
I started out writing in black-and-white composition notebooks, and I continued to write throughout elementary school and beyond. I was published in school literary magazines, and writing was always my favorite part of my teaching days. I used my own stories to model writing for my students, gave them authentic writing opportunities, and the chance to choose what they wanted to write.
I started writing for children in 2017, right after a visit with my nieces, who were ages two and four at the time. I was reading a lot of books to them and they inspired all kinds of stories. And one of my professional goals was to explore the possibility of writing children’s books. So I began reading a lot of picture books, spoke to people who I thought might be helpful, and took a picture book writing class. Soon after, I was writing and asking friends for feedback since I didn’t have a critique group at the time. Then, I started querying much too early. But, about six months later, I made some revisions to one of my stories, Let's Dance!, and sold it to an editor through a Twitter pitch. The book was published in 2020. Fast forward to today, I now have an agent extraordinaire, James McGowan, who has sold nine books for me.
Can you tell us your recent books and upcoming titles?
My most recent book, Ride, Roll, and Run: Time for Fun!, is an ode to play and community. It’s about the games that kids love to play outside with their friends. The games in the book are universal. They are games that I played as a kid, games that kids play today, and games for all ages. There’s basketball, hopscotch, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, and all kinds of things that kids can enjoy doing and being outside with their friends. There’s a companion book called Bing, Bop, Bam: Time to Jam! that will be out in 2023. It features a musical block party in the same neighborhood as Ride, Roll, and Run. There are different instruments from all around the world. The story is about community, bringing people together, and how music is just like playing, and something we can all enjoy together.
What are your hopes for these books?
With Ride, Roll, and Run, I hope my readers will connect with some of the games in the book. So I hope they will actually go out and play the games with their families and friends. I think that a true sign that this is a good book would be if while children are reading it, they see a game that inspires them to put the book down and say, “Let’s go outside and play!” In Bing, Bop, Bam, I hope my readers will want to listen to music or play instruments, and realize that they don’t need fancy instruments to make music. You can make music just using your hands and a table. I also hope they learn to love music, and to get up and to move.
What else can you tell us about your upcoming books?
In addition to Bing, Bop, Bam, there’s a companion book to Together We Ride called Together We Swim (both from Chronicle). In addition, I have a Scholastic Acorn series coming out next year called Rainbow Days that features a girl named Zoya and her dog, Coco, who love to make art. And, I have a book called I See Color (HarperCollins), co-authored with Kailei Pew, coming out in 2024.
How do you think your teaching/coaching has influenced your writing?
I do think the influence of my teaching and coaching on my actual writing is probably more intuitive. Because of my background, I know the kinds of things that kids want to read. For example, the kinds of activities they like to do and how they like to play. I think all writers write best from our own experience. Even though children have changed over the years and are different from when I was a child, there are some things that remain the same. So I’m still able to use my own experience, watch what my nieces are doing, and use what I see in the classroom, too. I think the greatest influence on my writing is my being an observer.
For example, my picture book Together We Ride came from an observation I made during the Covid shutdown. I was taking walks every day with my husband. And, after a long day of distance learning one day, we could see a lot of kids out riding bikes. In particular, there was a four-year-old girl who had learned how to ride a bike because she had been outside with her family so much. So, I thought that would make a great story.
What advice would you give other educators who might like to write their own stories?
I would encourage them to write with their kids. You’re giving them assignments, so why don’t you use your own writing as a model? Then you can use some of what you create for your own stories. This will allow your students to see your process, and you as a writer, too. It will also inspire them to write. Most importantly, be an observer in your classroom. Look at what students are doing. Listen to what they’re saying. You are surrounded by a field of story ideas ready to be brought to life.