Recently I was teaching Writers’ Workshop to fourth and fifth graders and when I asked them what went well, I was baffled by a student who said “we were quiet!” I smiled and let him know that sometimes it’s good to talk. Inside I was a little crushed. How could we have a strong Writers’ Workshop without talk?
As a huge proponent of active student involvement, rather than passive learning, how could I spend time in a classroom without conversation? When the students are discussing a topic and sharing their perspectives about text, I know that my students are actively learning. “In classes in which students have opportunities to talk about the content, the thinking falls on them” (Fisher & Frey, 2014, p. 19). In order to be able to talk about a topic, you must understand the topic. Students must first think about what they know, question what they don’t, and then put complete sentences and thoughts together to communicate. Many times, due to lack of time and an abundance of standards, teachers find themselves doing most of the talking. It is crucial that, as teachers, we turn this responsibility over to the students. Allow the students time to do the thinking, through discussion.
Not only will student discussions promote active learning, it will also increase the level of thinking the student is doing. When students engage in conversations with other students, their ideas will naturally begin to build. They will hear different perspectives, clarify their own thinking, and solidify their own point of view. “And when we involve students in activities that lead them to discuss, question, clarify, and write about course content, we not only foster better retention of subject matter but help expand students’ thinking abilities as well” (Meyers & Jones, 1993, p. 6). With law makers continually telling us that educators need to increase the rigor and critical thinking of students, conversation is a logical way to extend students’ thinking and a way to teach them to be critical thinkers.
The student who shared with me that it was great that they were so quiet did so understandably. There is somewhat of an unspoken rule that, if we’re quiet, we’re listening and not disturbing others. Talk is loud and somewhat messy when inexperienced conversationalists are involved. However, how can they improve if never given the opportunity to practice and learn? When introducing students to conversation, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Keep it short – at first! Provide a topic, preferably one that is open-ended, and then provide only a few minutes to discuss at first. Allow time for the students to share their ideas and hear other ideas, all the while keeping on topic. Then as a class community, debrief. What went well? What could have gone better? Create an anchor chart of how to have effective conversations. Congratulate the students on their conversation today and challenge them tomorrow to see if they can increase the time spent talking.
2. Explicitly teach the procedure. I know this seems silly, but in the age of technology where students are completely engrossed in their own individual devices, it is even more important that they learn how to make eye contact, talk face to face, and respond appropriately. Demonstrate a conversation in front of the students. Show them exactly how you want them to face each other, how to make eye contact, how to begin a conversation, etc. Allow them time to practice this “new crazy idea” you have of talking. Be prepared to reteach.
3. Teach conversation. When I was in Austin ISD, I learned all about Accountable Talk. When I first tried this with my second graders I was hooked. By teaching the students how to build conversations, my 23 little seven-year-olds learned how to have strong, critical conversations with each other. My students learned how to agree with each other, disagree with each other, and add value to the discussion. They were the ones doing the learning!
In the end, regardless of how much there is to teach and how scary many little humans talking is, we need to turn over the learning to the students and allow them the opportunity to learn the content.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking Volumes. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 18-23.
Meyers, C., & Jones, T. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.