Wednesday, March 1, 2017


Based on nearly every interaction I have had with a human being in the last two weeks, I’d conclude that February is a terribly abusive month. Thank goodness it’s over. In schools, especially, stress is thriving. Students are getting antsy and are feeling the academic and personal pressures that always come with the spring semester when they’re ready for everything to be over but can’t quite see the still-distant end. The honeymoon period wore off months ago, and now students and staff are wondering if divorce is an option. Teachers seem buried in mounds of grading and paperwork. Open house, field trips, TELPAS samples, make-up work from illness outbreaks, required professional development, and oppressive pollen counts have turned normally cheerful and upbeat teachers into grumpy zombies. At an Ed Camp event last week in our district, the most highly attended session--with standing-room-only crowds of teachers spilling out into the hallway outside the packed room--was the one on Stress and Teacher Self Care.  Staff, students, paraprofessionals, and administrators all seem to be competing against one another in a giant game of Wheel of Unfortunate. Everyone is overwhelmed.

It’s time for us all to take a moment to breathe. Stop what you’re doing. Forget about the e-mails, the voicemails, the stack of papers to grade, the lesson plans, and the disciplinary referrals. Don’t worry about your to-do list. It’ll get done. Just breathe. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes if you’d like (though that’s going to make reading the rest of this a bit of a challenge). Try doing nothing but concentrating on your breath for a full minute. When you’ve mastered that, try two. Think of it as a service project; you’re creating carbon dioxide for the plants and flowers that are trying get us out of this wintery, brown funk. Relax your jaw. Let the tension out of your forehead. Simply breathe.

There. Feel any better yet? Sometimes, taking that time to slow down and take care of ourselves by filling our needy cells with restorative oxygen makes tensions seem less tense.

Image result for breathe

The O in AVID’s WICOR acronym stands for organization. We teach our students to organize many things: their binders, their time, their study routines, their writing. Isn’t it equally important for us to teach them to organize the clutter that is swirling around in their brains and causing stress and tension? Organizing one’s inner life may even be more important than organizing one’s exterior self because once we are facing the world calmly, we can put things into perspective much more clearly and focus on what needs to be accomplished.

Consider what you can do to help students calm the turmoil in their lives. For one thing, you can begin by acknowledging and normalizing the stress they are feeling. So often we feel that we are alone in our feelings and that everyone else must be navigating life much more skillfully than we are. Maybe my opening paragraph above made you feel better knowing that the stress you are feeling right now isn’t atypical. Talking about stress and anxiety and allowing your students to talk about them lets students know they aren’t alone.

We shouldn’t stop, though, with merely acknowledging the existence of stress. The next step is to teach some ways to cope. One of the easiest, as you may have realized, is breathing. On days of particularly stressful tests and exams, I often asked my students to take a moment at the start of class to breathe together, to slow down, to clear their minds of stress, and to tell themselves that they could succeed. I shared my confidence in them and asked them to believe in themselves. The change in the stress level in the room was palpable. Students went into the test with a newfound tranquility and renewed focus. I don’t have empirical data to prove that their test scores improved, but I think my students would tell you that the extra oxygen helped them think a little more clearly.

I think it’s so important that we, in our highly influential roles as educators, provide our students with every tool for success in life. The ability to recognize their emotional stressors and to try to combat them is a skill that will help them forevermore. We need to remember, though, that it’s tough for us to teach what we don’t practice ourselves.

It’s really hard to teach self-care, however, if we don’t practice it. Before we can extol the virtues of stress management, physical activity, getting plenty of sleep, downtime, adequate nutrition, and positive peer relationships, we need to experience those ourselves.

With Spring Break looming just around the corner, I invite you to take some time to recharge yourself. Leave your work stresses behind for a week and practice self-care. Breathe a lot. And even when the break has ended and it’s time to return to school, continue to take care of yourself as needed so you can be the best you can be for your students. They need you more than they will ever admit.

And don’t forget to breathe. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Problems Waiting for Solutions

Some problems don’t have answers...yet. But I’m a firm believer that in education, much of the innovative progress we make comes from first identifying a problem that results in a shift of our philosophical stance on the issue.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

I have a problem teaching literature.  I have decided that I am opposed to most quizzes and tests used to measure students’ reading comprehension. The way we have traditionally attempted to check student reading is problematic, and I am not okay with it. I’ve been pondering my stance on this for a while and made up my mind last week after a conversation with a few 10th grade students.

In a Spanish classroom I happened to visit, I met a young woman; let’s call her Fred for the sake of anonymity. I noticed that Fred had a copy of Charles Dickens’s often-reviled-by-high-school-students novel A Tale of Two Cities among her possessions and that this particular copy had a bookmark situated about two-thirds of the way through the book. Endeavoring to offer some hope and encouragement to this sophomore, I remarked, “I see that you’re on the home stretch of the book. Impressive!”

Fred looked a bit confused and then examined her book more closely. “I guess I am,” she replied, with a bit of pleased surprise in her voice.

“How are you enjoying it?” I queried.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not so bad. It’s actually getting a little easier and more interesting. I kind of like it.”

I commended her on her hard work and made some chitchat about the book. Our conversation was overheard by another female student sitting at a nearby table. Let’s call her Buddy. Buddy interrupted us to boast loudly, “I haven’t read any of that book.”

We looked at her in surprise that she was so delighted by her admission. “And,” Buddy continued, “I made 100 on both of the quizzes over the book just by reading Sparknotes!”

Fred frowned, looked down at her book, and said quietly, “I made an 80 on my quizzes.”

I tried to buoy her spirits by reminding her of how much she has grown as a reader who can handle challenging texts, but I could see that Fred was a little disappointed at the amount of effort she had expended for a payoff less impressive than that of Buddy, her corner-cutting classmate.

That, I decided, is what is wrong with reading quizzes. If some students are not rewarded for reading while others achieve success without doing the very thing the quizzes are intended to measure, something is not right. The students’ teachers have  reinforced the idea that having the right answer--however you come by it--is more important than developing reading skills.

The obvious solution (we’ve all done it) is for teachers to read Sparknotes themselves and construct a quiz or test that is Sparknote-proof. That way, students who take shortcuts won’t be rewarded. The problem with that, though, is that students like Fred who are conscientiously reading (and struggling because Dickens is hard) may still have difficulty answering the new, super-specific questions. This solution reinforces the belief that the important thing about reading a book is to pay attention to and memorize trivial details--the color of the beggar’s scarf, the speaker of a fairly unmemorable quotation, the name of the footman who brings in the letter.

We want to reward the readers and trap those who don’t, but our efforts still punish and reward the wrong things. We seek accountability, but we can’t always be certain that our results measure what we think we are measuring.

So I have decided that I am officially opposed to such quizzes.

The problem is that I don’t have other options readily available to me. Although I know what I don’t believe in, I don’t exactly know what to do instead. What I do have is a list of criteria for the solution I seek:

  • I want to be able to reward Fred for her hard work, perseverance, and growth.
  • I want Buddy to want to be more like Fred by actually reading the book so she, too, can grow in her reading abilities.
  • I want my assessments and grades to align with the goals of the unit and the lessons I am teaching to help students reach those goals.
  • I want to motivate all my students to read, to challenge themselves, to gain confidence, and to take risks academically.
  • I want it to be okay to struggle in my classroom and not always be punished for it.
  • I do not want to be the teacher who is constantly in “gotcha” mode.
  • I want students to see the worth of reading rather than dread it.

My list of criteria will help me figure out a solution that works. Perhaps I will decide that I just need to get over the whole “hold their feet to the fire” mentality and quit giving comprehension checks altogether. Maybe I will change the nature of my comprehension checks to a format that allows students to explain what they do understand instead of asking them to recall facts I think they ought to remember. I could also direct my efforts to creating a classroom environment which encourages students to engage with the content in such an exciting, authentic way that they want to read so they can be a part of what’s going on.

Ideally, I can find some colleagues who are wrestling with the same problem and start some meaningful, solution-oriented dialogue to come up with innovative solutions. In a world that is changing as swiftly as ours, it’s a shame to hold on so tightly to the traditions of the past and continually think inside the box.

I suspect that you can identify some significant problems of your own, problems without easy solutions that warrant further exploration. What is going on that you are not okay with? Maybe these problems are at a campus level: engaging certain populations of students; keeping kids in class and out of the halls; rampant absenteeism; student apathy; ineffective homework practices, inequity in enrollment in advanced classes, cell phone use spiraling out of control. They may also be problems particular to an academic team or unique to you as a teacher.

I encourage you to take some time to identify a problem, explore its scope, identify criteria for an acceptable solution, and then find some people who will engage with you in some extreme visioning. Maybe you could even bring students into the decision-making process; after all, they’re the consumers here.

And if you want to help me brainstorm ways to solve my anti-reading-quiz dilemma, let me know. I welcome the opportunity to dream big with you.

The Power of Stories

Stories stick. We remember them. Stories in the classroom can be powerful learning tools.

I still recall Mrs. Marshall, my elementary school music teacher, telling us the tale of Mr. Do and Mr. Mi, who lived on the same street with an empty lot between their houses.

I remember a terrible and lengthy joke/story Mr. Holpp, my seventh-grade Life Science teacher, told us when we were learning about parasites. It involved a curious cure for a patient’s tapeworm and had the punchline, spoken by the tapeworm itself, “Where’s the pickle?” More importantly, it helped me learn understand and remember the concept of operant conditioning.

I’ll never forget my grandma’s story of her first date with my grandpa, a memorable blind date that ended with my grandfather, wearing a white suit stained with watermelon juice, sitting on the steps in front of Grandma’s house and ripping up the photo he had been carrying in his wallet of his now-ex girlfriend. Though this story was not told in a classroom, it was clearly a part of the curriculum of life as my grandma taught me about the love, humor,  and dedication that characterized their life together through much of the 20th century.

When teachers learn to harness the power of effective storytelling, they unleash a mighty instructional tool. For several reasons, a story judiciously used can pack an educational wallop.

As I stated earlier, stories are memorable. They can be used to make a complex abstract concept come to life. I once watched Ashley Ogal at Carpenter Middle School describe to her students two weddings in which she served as a bridesmaid. One was a fancy affair with a plated dinner and a deejay at a swanky hotel; the other was a more casual backyard celebration with a picnic buffet and music from an homemade iPod playlist blaring from home stereo speakers. Ashley described each wedding reception to her seventh graders and concluded her story by saying that both events, though different, were wonderful in their own ways. She then connected the story to the concept of voice in writing. While it’s okay in some situations, she explained, to write in a style akin to “Y’all get up and dance now,” sometimes it’s more appropriate to adopt the voice of the deejay: “Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to the dance floor as the newlywed couple shares their first dance.” I feel reasonably certain that her students will understand the difference between formal and informal voice forevermore after hearing this memorable story.

Not only is storytelling an excellent way to make a point stick, stories also build community in your classroom. When teachers share a story from their own lives, they share a piece of themselves. A story of a lesson learned, a past struggle, or an embarrassing gaffe can not only provide some guidance to students, but it can also make the storyteller a little more human in the eyes of the listeners. When my students embarked on online research, I liked to tell them about “the old days” when you had to get your mom to take you to the Richardson Public Library (they had more magazines than Plano), where you had to use the paperback Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to identify articles of interest, fill out a piece of paper to request the magazine, wait by the window while some librarian fetched it, pray that no one before you had ripped the pages out of the magazine, read the article, and determine whether it was worth spending your precious dime-a-page to copy at the Xerox machine. The point of my story was that the Internet now practically delivers the text of millions of magazines and newspapers to them; however, the researcher now has to work that much harder to make sure that what is delivered is worth using. Sharing the hardships of my past life as a high school researcher amused my students while helping them understand why I feel so strongly about the importance of vigilance in online research.

Perhaps the most powerful use of stories in the classroom is to build up the number of stories your students have in their own libraries of experience. When I share my story with you, my story becomes your story. And the more stories you have to tell, the more you understand about the world. I may not have been alive during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but because I attended the school district’s annual tribute event in January honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and heard the stories of struggles and triumphs that took place in our own city told by people who were there, I have stories to tell about the courage of those who paved the way for others. When a college classmate who has transitioned from female to male told me at Homecoming several years ago about his difficulties with airport security screenings, access to public restrooms, and rejection by his family, I gained some stories to help me understand and appreciate the struggles of transgender people in our society today. His stories put a personal face on something that had previously been only a news headline to me. This was someone I have known for over 20 years, and when he smiled while telling me that he can now, for the first time ever, stand to have a mirror in his house because it finally reflects back who he really is, his story changed me. And because he shared his story with me, I can now share it with others.

English teachers have long known what research has now confirmed: reading literary fiction improves people’s empathy. Whether we read them or have them told to us, the stories and experiences of others make us better people. We owe it to our students to expose them to many stories so they can choose which ones will shape their own understandings of the world around them.

All of this talk about stories comes with one caveat: teachers must be purposeful about how and when they insert stories into their instruction. Stories without a purpose are a waste of time. Stories with too much detail or with meandering plotlines confuse students. Overly complicated stories lose students’ focus and interest. Stories without an introduction and summative explanation often cause students to miss the point.

I invite you to take a moment to think about the stories from your own life or the ones you’ve collected over your life that you can add to your personal library of stories to use in the classroom. Be on the lookout always for new stories to enhance your collection. Choose wisely, though. As the Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods pointed out, “Careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.”  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Reptiles of the Mind

In my younger days, I thought Brussels sprouts were icky, loved Big Macs, and believed that wearing a neon blue t-shirt with acid-washed jeans was a smart fashion choice. Now that I have discovered the virtues of roasting Brussels sprouts with olive oil and sea salt, have seen the nutritional info on McDonald's signature burger, and have reviewed photographs from my high school days, I have rethought my previous beliefs, and I feel pretty good about my current opinions.
Changing one’s mind gets a bad rap these days. In the world of politics, for instance, candidates are vilified for changing their stances. A politician who cast a vote in support of an issue decades ago and votes against it today receives a lambasting from the voting public and media for flip-floppery. Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle dig their heels in and refuse to cross party lines, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that might cause any reasonable person to revise his or her original opinion. We have become a nation of extremely opinionated individuals who intend to stick to their opinions and never budge.  
The 18th century British poet William Blake penned one of my favorite quotations: “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” In college when I first read Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I was drawn to this quotation partly because it contained a wildly descriptive simile but mostly because it embodied what I saw as a clarification of the point of education.
An educated person never stops growing. Constantly seeking new ideas and other perspectives, a learner continues to refine his or her views and ideas about the world. Each new viewpoint or piece of knowledge shapes the learner in some way. The learner considers the new input, measures it against his or her prior understanding, and decides how to integrate it into the whole--to reject it, to accept it, to alter his or her understanding. Sometimes, when presented with compelling new evidence, a learner even changes his or her opinion.
In contrast, the person who has stopped learning doesn’t consider other views or compelling evidence and thus remains fixed in thought, belief, and practice. That person, as Blake concluded, “is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” That can’t be good, can it?
I think about how this factors into my own journey as an educator. Looking back at what I believed during my fledgling years, I’m glad to have had exposure to new research and theory that has helped shape my practice. Some of the elements I considered vital components of my English classroom back in the 90s--grammar worksheets, study packets, comprehension questions, teacher-provided vocabulary lists, multiple-choice tests to assess comprehension--would not be found there today. Each new piece of information I take in and every conversation with a fellow educator shapes my own philosophy of teaching.
To ward off reptiles of the mind in our students, teachers must reinforce the importance of learning as a growth experience. We must continually challenge them to question their own thinking. We must dare them to form opinions for themselves and not look to their peers for constant approval. We must encourage mental flexibility, not rigidity. We must help them learn to read and listen to understand and to write to be understood. We must model an openness to new ideas that don’t always echo our own. We must make it noble to admit, "I once held this opinion, but now that I've considered some new perspectives and data, I have changed my mind."
One of my favorite AVID strategies for encouraging this type of thinking is Philosophical Chairs. In a nutshell, Philosophical Chairs is a form of whole-class debate. Students read a text or pair of texts that provides information or ideas that could be used to support both sides of a controversial issue. Typically, students mark the text and then quick-write to clarify their opinions on the topic. Then, they move to chairs placed on either side of the room to indicate what position they plan to support in the debate. Sides alternate speaking, offering supports for their side (ideally, going back to the text) or responding to comments of their opponents. Here’s the kicker, though. If a student is swayed by the other side’s arguments, that student can relocate to the other side or to a non-debating neutral zone to physically indicate that his or her stance has changed. As students listen to one another and discuss, they deepen their own understandings of the issue, and, as ought to happen in an intellectual discussion, they sometimes change their ways of thinking.
Using strategies like Philosophical Chairs is an excellent way to model the kinds of behaviors appropriate for intellectual discourse and disagreement in an academic setting. Mudslinging, name calling, and personal attacks are forbidden. When cool heads and open minds prevail, people listen, learn, and grow.
Educators are tasked with one of the biggest and most important jobs in the world: creating a citizenry who will not only survive but will thrive in a rapidly changing world and will shape the future for the betterment of all. Reptiles of the mind have no place in an environment where such essential work is taking place. We must continue to think and grow so our students will do the same.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What Student-Focused Talk Looks Like

I received some positive responses to last week’s article explaining my beliefs about student talk. I also heard some questions about what this kind of talk looks like and how to make it happen in a classroom. As a follow-up, this week I am providing several scenarios to help you identify some of the ways you can shift your instructional focus to incorporate more conversation into your teaching practice.

Scenario 1:  
Teacher-Talk Approach:  The students are reading the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. The teacher reads the text aloud and asks students to read along. Then, the teacher rereads the passage line by line, explaining what each line means. At the end, the teacher asks, “Does everybody get it?”  The students dutifully reply, “Yes.”  “Any questions?”  Silence.

Student-Talk Approach:  The teacher reads the 14 lines of the Prologue silently as the students follow along. Then, she asks the students to read it along with her in unison. Students then read back through the passage silently, underlining all the phrases they understand. Then, the teacher asks them to discuss with a partner, first talking about the things they understand. Then, she asks them to identify the places they are confused and talk about why, specifically, these places are difficult, formulating questions about their points of confusion. Each pair of students joins with another pair and discusses the points of confusion, clarifying where possible. The remaining questions then go to the entire class and teacher for discussion and explanation.  

Craig’s notes:  In this scenario, the students read aloud in unison, which allows all to practice fluent oral reading with a safety net (and without subjecting the students to having to listen to befuddled peers butcher Shakespeare). Then, students are doing the comprehension work with a partner, modeling the things that good readers do as they decipher difficult text. Allowing the students to struggle reinforces a growth mindset and helps dispel the idea that the teacher will swoop in to provide correct answers at the slightest sign of difficulty.  

Scenario 2:  
Teacher-Talk Approach: Government students read a chapter explaining the three branches of the U.S. government. They individually complete a study guide with questions that highlight the most important points in the chapter. Students may use the study guides on an open-note quiz to check for understanding.

Student-Talk Approach:  Prior to reading an explanation of the three branches of the U.S. government, students talk in four-person table groups about the following: “What would happen if the U.S. legislature passed a law that violated the Constitution? What would happen if the President tried to overstep his or her power?” After students discuss, the teacher encourages them to look for the answers as they read the chapter. Then, students complete a two-minute quickwrite and talk in pairs about this question: “What is the difference between the separation of powers and checks and balances?” The teacher asks students to answer the question individually in writing on a notecard as a ticket out the door.

Craig’s notes: The teacher in the student-talk scenario follows a variation of Nancy Motley’s Talk Read Talk Write strategy. Students first talk about the topic in order to activate prior knowledge and give a focus for their reading. The second talk involves a common misunderstanding of students and provides students the opportunity to wrestle verbally with this potentially confusing distinction between two related topics. The teacher’s question requires complex thinking rather than a simple regurgitation of facts or definitions. Allowing students to complete the quickwrite before discussing helps them clarify their thoughts. Finally, the exit card allows the teacher to monitor individual students’ understanding and to use that to guide the next day’s instruction.

Scenario 3:  
Teacher-Talk Approach: A teacher gives a lecture with accompanying PowerPoint slideshow. Students take notes from the slides to use to study for the upcoming test.

Student-Talk Approach: The teacher delivers the lecture while students take notes on the right column of a page of Cornell Notes. The PowerPoint (if one is used) contains only images and occasionally important words, so students have to take their own notes based on what the teacher says. Every ten minutes, the teacher stops to allow students to work with a partner to compare notes. The partners verbally recreate the preceding portion of the lecture using their notes--adding to, clarifying, or correcting their notes, as needed. For homework, students review and revise their notes--circling key terms, underlining important ideas, adding symbols, charts, pictures, or other marginalia to process what they learned. The next day in class, students work in pairs to review their notes and create higher-level questions about the topics in the left column of the Cornell Notes. These questions can be used for small-group discussion over the notes. For homework, students review their notes and questions and write a summary of the notes at the bottom of their Cornell Notes. At the beginning of the next class period, students share their summaries with a partner before moving on.  

Craig’s notes:  Welcome to my high school education, except back in the day we used an overhead instead of PowerPoint. Sadly, lecturing is still a frequently overused (and largely ineffective) teaching method. When lecturing must occur, best practice says that teachers should stop and allow students to process approximately every 10 minutes. This provides a state change (which wakes up the brain) and helps the students digest the material. The student-talk approach above takes the class through the multiple stages of the Focused Note-Taking process in which students revisit the material collaboratively in multiple ways--review and revision, questioning, summarizing. This models the necessary repetitions to move the students toward long-term understanding of the content. Yes, it takes longer, but the students will actually understand and remember what they learned. For more on Cornell Notes, read this.

Scenario 4:
Teacher-Talk Approach: A math teacher works a problem that many students missed on a test to show the class how to solve it correctly.

Student-Talk Approach:  The math teacher displays the attempt of a fictional student who solved the problematic problem incorrectly. In pairs, students look at what the student did and try to explain where the student went wrong. What was this student’s misunderstanding or mistake? After students discuss, the teacher calls upon a student to share what he and his partner discussed.

Craig’s notes: Teacher talk usually involves passive students. In the student-talk approach, the onus of the learning is on the kids as they wrangle with the problem and try to explain the thought processes of the solver. Practicing this sort of discussion can help the students become more adept at diagnosing their own missteps as they solve problems individually later. Another effective approach is to have one student explain to another how she solved a problem and to allow the other student to verify whether the student’s explanation and solution are correct. Often, students can explain concepts to one another in language that is more accessible than the teacher’s attempts.

Scenario Five:  
Teacher-Talk Approach: Students have been working for several days on an essay in class, and, as she did the day before, the teacher begins the period by asking students to take out the assignment sheet and the rubric and follow along as she reminds them of the most important points.

Student-Talk Approach: Since students have heard this once already, the teacher asks the students to take out their assignment sheet and rubrics and to talk with a partner. Partner A explains the assignment to Partner B for 30 seconds. Partner B responds using a sentence stem the teacher has put on the board, “What I heard you saying is…and I also want to point out...” and then re-summarizes what Partner A originally said, adding some additional important information. The teacher asks the pairs to look at the rubric. Partner B begins with the stem, “In order to do well on this essay…” and explains the criteria for an outstanding essay according to the rubric. Partner A responds using this teacher-provided stem: “Some things you should avoid doing are…” and uses the rubric to elaborate. Students then begin work on their essays individually.

Craig’s notes: When teachers “go over” assignment sheets and rubrics, students often hear the “waah waaah waaa-wah waaaah” of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Just because we said it, doesn’t mean they got it.  One way to prompt students to look more closely at instructions and rubrics is by asking them to explain things to one another in their own words. The sentence stems provided by the teacher give students a guide for how to use academic register in summarization. These are especially effective for English language learners but work well for all students. Nearly every teenager can use a little practice in how classroom talk differs from informal talk among peers in non-academic settings. As the students are explaining the rubric and assignment sheet to one another, the teacher can monitor the discussions to identify points that require clarification for the entire class.

I could keep writing these scenarios for days, but I’d rather let you do some of the thinking yourselves. I encourage you to find a colleague and have some productive talk as you brainstorm ways to get your students to do more of the talking in your own classes. I think you’ll be pleased at the level of student engagement that will occur after the students grow accustomed to talking--and thinking--about what they are learning.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Eleven Beliefs About Student Talk

The more I observe students in schools, the more convinced I am that the best way to transform an ordinary classroom into a vibrant hive of learning is to let the kids talk. Most young people are naturally social and enjoy interacting with their peers. Why not figure out ways to channel those inclinations into productive educational conversations? To give you something to ponder on this topic, I’ve composed a list of eleven of my beliefs about student talk:

1. The people doing the talking are the people doing the thinking.
If you, the teacher, are doing most of the talking in class, you are probably physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day. Furthermore, you may have no idea whether your students know or understand anything you said to them. If you plan lessons that require students to do more talking, your students will be doing the thinking, which means they will be doing the learning, too.    

2.  Structured student conversation should occur multiple times in every instructional period.
This belief has two key components: the conversation should 1) be structured and 2) occur repeatedly. 1) Structure:  Free-form conversation (“Discuss this in your table groups…”) quickly degenerates into off-task chatting. Adding some structure (more specific topics or questions to address, sentence starters or frames, time limits, explicit rules about how the speaking is supposed to proceed, roles for each member of the conversation) will ensure that the talk time is effective. 2) Repeat occurrence:  Learners need brain breaks, and student talk is a great way to reset brains and reinforce understanding before, during, and after cognitive activities. Stopping to allow a two-minute partner share during a lecture not only allows students to explain what they’ve learned but it also wakes them up. Paired conversation could occur after every question the teacher asks during a class. A well-designed lesson provides numerous opportunities for students to talk to one another.        

3.  Full-class discussions, if they have to occur at all, should take place after the students have talked in pairs or other small groups.
I am not a fan of the full-class discussions. I didn’t enjoy them when I was in school. I don’t enjoy them now in professional learning scenarios as an adult. Full-class discussions are a boring beatdown. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue between a teacher or presenter and a handful of interested participants. Everyone else has mentally checked out or is waiting for that one blabbermouth to shut up. If you must have full-group discussions, at least let your students talk about the question or topic beforehand in smaller groupings where everyone can participate. That’s when the real learning occurs. The subsequent large-group discussion can be a quick check for understanding and an opportunity for students to ask the questions that came up as they were talking with their partners.  

4.  Students write like they speak. Teaching students to speak in academic register improves their speaking and writing abilities.
We don’t speak the same way in every situation. What might be appropriate with friends in a casual setting isn’t the way people speak in an academic or professional environment. Most adults have learned to speak in various language registers: formal, informal, academic, parental, etc. Teaching students to speak like experts gives them an automatic edge in the world. I’ve graded many a paper from a student who writes in teenspeak, their writing peppered with likes and you knows. Who can blame them if they have no awareness of shifting between language registers for various purposes? When you provide your students with templates for academic speech, show them how to link ideas together with transitional words and phrases, and equip them with academic vocabulary in your subject, you are teaching them a new language that, once it becomes more automatic, will transfer into their writing.    

5.  If I can explain it, I probably understand it.
Have you ever had that experience where you read about something or listen to someone explain a topic and then realize, when you attempt to tell someone else about it, that you have some significant gaps in your comprehension? Students shouldn’t discover they don’t understand something as they are taking a test over that topic. Asking students to explain concepts to one another allows them to check their own understanding. (I love the idea of one student explaining a topic and the other student paraphrasing what that person said after listening to the explanation.) The more you ask students to talk about your subject, the stronger their understanding will become.  

6.  Students need think time and writing time before they speak.
I’ve been guilty many times of posing a question to the entire class and instantly beginning a discussion over the topic. Of course, there was always one eager quick-thinker who jumped in to answer the question instantly. Many of the other students were still trying to form an answer as I was moving on to another question. Most, I fear, never even bothered with the thinking because they knew someone else would beat them to it. I learned to try this instead: I posed a thought-provoking question and allowed students a minute or two to write their response in their interactive notebook. Then, I asked students to discuss in pairs before calling on a few students at random to share their answers with the class. Providing that think time helped struggling students come up with something to say and gave all students a chance to develop deeper thoughts on paper instead of responding quickly in a more superficial way.

7.   Student talk doesn’t have to be a big deal if it’s an everyday occurrence.
Once my student became accustomed to interacting with one another, they knew what to do and did it willingly and automatically. I established “elbow partners” and “quads” so that there was no confusion when I asked them to turn and talk.  

8.  Students become more confident sharing their ideas with the class if they have had time to rehearse them with a smaller group first.
Speaking in front of the class is a fate worse than death for many students. Part of their trepidation comes from a fear of being wrong or of being made fun of for a “stupid” answer. When students have an opportunity to try out their responses in front of a significantly smaller audience, they become more confident when asked to share with the whole class. They also learn from the responses from others and may use what they’ve learned to refine their own response if called upon to share.   

9.  Putting a grade on student talk makes the talk inauthentic.
In the real world, we aren’t graded on the frequency or quality of our speaking in meetings and conversations. The value of conversations and discussions comes from the exchange of ideas, building onto these ideas, civil cognitive conflict, and the resulting learning that occurs. When teachers decide to grade discussions, the talk becomes selfish, with each student seeking to demonstrate whatever skills will earn the desired grade. Make the talk itself the reward. Emphasize the learning that occurs. Reinforce the moves the students make that you’d like to see more of in future discussions.  

10.  To effectively facilitate student talk, teachers have to plan ahead.
Low-level, closed-ended questions and topics don’t generate much conversation or student interest. Take the time to prepare stimulating ideas for students to talk about. Examine your lesson plans for the perfect moments to incorporate a check-in conversation or an open-ended question to spur further exploration. Bounce ideas off your colleagues in planning sessions to infuse speaking experiences throughout the lesson cycle to engage students at many levels.

11.  Students won’t get better at speaking if they don’t have frequent practice.
Don’t throw up your hands in defeat after the first attempt at promoting student conversation fizzles. “Our kids can’t…” is the phrase that killed more learning than any other one. I won’t get better at learning to speak Spanish if I don’t practice speaking with others. Similarly, students won’t get better at speaking unless they do it all the time. And the quality of their speaking won’t improve if teachers don’t give them practice speaking like experts. It may not be pretty at first. If you’ve attended the fall concert of first-year orchestra students, you know what I mean. But keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll have a symphony of conversation occurring automatically in your classroom.