Home : 2007 : Jul : 13
"Is there something you'd like to share with the class?"
Memories. When I was in elementary school, it seemed like the sole role of the teacher was to keep the class industriously working in silence. I was your typical teacher-pleaser type, so I hardly ever spoke out of turn, and if I did, I did with fear in my heart. For if I uttered a word, I knew the teacher would shine a spotlight on me-- "Is there something you'd like to share with the class?"-- making me an example to everyone else: here is a student doing something that is not a school behavior. Talking-- bad. Quiet obedience-- good. End of story? Well, not quite. Then came college...
In college, professors prodded the students- most of whom went through a talk-less, opinion-less schooling, like me. They posed intriguing questions, they pushed their unwilling learners into groups, they poked and poked and poked. Somewhere in the thick of things, we began to bloom. What followed was an awakening; first, of myself as a thinker and learner, then as a future teacher.
At that point, of course, I hadn't formed any permanent visions of my classroom or structures for talk. But what was dawning on me was, "a classroom doesn't, and shouldn't, have to be quiet." I started to hear that same sentiment in my classes as the future teachers of America talked in dreamy, idealistic ways.
Fast forward a couple of years: Some ridiculous number of those previously idealistic first year teachers quit in the first five years. Could it be because we get into the classroom and realize that all of our great visions are not so easily made concrete? Could it be because we walk past other classrooms and see rows of children working quietly?
We are products of whatever hand first molded us. We have to actively, consciously fight against the current. How incredibly easy would it be to sit the kids down, give them a workbook, write the page numbers on the board, and check email? How much easier would it be if the kids kept quiet all day? Then, we could check our email in peace and we wouldn't have to worry about moderating their talk or grappling with their far-out ideas. But- then again, what kind of students would we be turning out?
We're not in the factory-mode of education anymore (although some argue that we still are). I like to look at education a little more optimistically-- Slowly but surely, teachers are emerging from the restraints of a cold vice that kept a neat lid on their classrooms for so long. But it's not easy. How can we turn talk into something powerful for our students? It's not enough to just let them talk-- teachers who've tried that, end up giving in and flowing with the current. There's a lot of "shhhhing" and "I'm waiting's" because the talk is not meaningful, just disruptive.
The fact that learning is rooted in language is an ideal to which I adhere. If that's so, how can we silence the most natural form of language? We so often list reading and writing as our language arts curriculum, and we think that listening and speaking are givens. But there goes that current again-- if you don't actively and consciously plan for rich listening and speaking opportunities, they just won't happen.
Here are just a few structures for talk in the classroom:
Personal shares: Not to be confused with show and tell, sharing is the perfect time to give voice to the things that kids care about outside of the classroom. Give them time to talk about their softball win, the death of their goldfish, their playdates. Work in some active listening lessons and teach them how to ask meaningful questions that evoke more than one-word answers. Once they have internalized sharing in a full group, give more people a chance to talk at once by partner sharing.
Learning Shares: Grounded in what's happening in the classroom, rather than out of the classroom, learning shares can be some of the most powerful teaching moments of the day. Take time to sit in a circle and share strategies, struggles, and celebrations in every academic subject. These sharing times won't take up disproportionate amounts of time if you don't let them. We can't allow every child to share every time. The emphasis needs to be on the learning. Children need to be fully invested in what the sharer is saying. They need to ask questions, make comments, and stretch the speaker.
Interactive read alouds: If you notice that your read aloud questions always seem to come back to the same kinds of questions- whether they are too literal, or mostly connection questions, or "what d'ya think's gonna happen next?" questions- start writing out your questions ahead of time. Ask more general questions- ones that your student teaching supervisor probably would have cringed upon hearing. Like: "What do you think about that?" or "Talk to me about this part/character action/ending." Don't expect deep, genius thoughts from your class at first. Be alert for even the smallest spark of a genius idea, pull it out, and bring it to the attention of the class. Allow lots of times where everybody is talking: Have your students paired up with partnerships that last the year. Because as students start to feel comfortable with their partner, the ideas and opinions and criticisms will start to flow.
Talk partners: Partnering kids up with their own "say-something" partner reduces the time it takes for them to locate someone to talk to, or for you to find someone for them to talk to. Having these say-something partners allows the teacher the flexibility to stop teaching at anytime, throw out a question, ask for a rephrase, request an example or application. How beautiful to increase the percentage that all children are accountable through talk! Plus, when kids have permanent partners, they know each other's strengths and weaknesses and they know how to get the best from each other- provided that you've taught them strategies for that, also. Our list for September mini-lessons is growing...
Book clubs: (Not read as: literature circles, which certainly have their own place too) Teach your students to participate in and eventually run book clubs. Think about the kind of club you'd want to participate in, and work towards that vision. Moving children towards independence means inserting yourself as an active participant in the group at first and slowing phasing yourself out. One way that has worked for me is to teach just one group first. Usually- it's not a group of high readers (I find that they are my most needy book club members), but it is a group of student leaders-- the kids who are always able to find something to talk about. Once they have learned how to run a club, let them be the teachers for the rest of the class. Make a fishbowl around them, and talk about their behaviors quietly as they run a typical book club in front of the others. In my opinion, if your students aren't loving book clubs, you need to retrace your steps and start again.
Group work: Of course, we all do group work in one form or another, but think about how it usually plays out. The teacher gives the assignment, explains the directions once, explains the directions again, asks for someone to repeat the directions. The teacher makes groups, passes out materials, and if we're lucky, the kids don't fight over the markers too much as they complete the task. But in a first or second grade classroom, how much time is spent on following the directions and how much time is spent talking it out, arguing, meeting in the middle, hypothesizing? Heck- they just want to make sure they get their favorite color marker, and if everyone does, if and everyone is happy, they have "met in the middle". Much of the mundane can be avoided if we 1) teach kids how to talk, argue, compromise, hypothesize and 2) (much easier...) Just don't hand them any materials until we're happy with the way they have run their group! My rule is, you can't have your materials until I sit with your group and each member that I talk to can explain some of your thinking.
Talk talk: that is-- talk in transitions, talk during workshops, talk while they wait. What harm did talking in class ever do? If students know their volume limits, and the teacher does not have an objective that dictates silence, why would we ever shush them? Talking in its purest form fulfills all kinds of goals: children are gaining social skills, building classroom communities, feeding off of each others expertises, scaffolding each other's learning, and on and on.Back to my schooling years: What would have been, had I talked my way through school? What could I have learned, have achieved, have been- if my youngest self had been sincerely questioned, thoughtfully listened to, and regularly celebrated? I may never know the answer to that, but I do know what I can do for the children of today. I can step to the side, and let them talk.
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