raise it up: lifting the level of discourse

the CCSS speaking and listening standards and, for many teachers, danielson domains 3b (using questioning and discussion techniques) and 3c (engaging students in learning), have pushed collaborative discussion to become a much talked about topic in our field and we wholeheartedly agree that the voices heard the most in our classroom should be those of our students; not us. being able to thoughtfully discuss our ideas and opinions with others is a crucial life skill.

when we think back to our own schooling, we  remember more times when we were asked questions designed to check our comprehension of texts we had read than times we were  asked to engage in discussion around a text or issue. it was definitely more inquisition than conversation.

now, it’s common practice to have students turn and talk to each other. “accountable talk stems” seen in classrooms are meant to give students the language they need to engage in discussion with each other. but all too often, we talk to teachers who are disheartened with the level of discourse in their classrooms.

sure, kids are saying “i agree ” or “i disagree” and giving reasons, but conversations often stay at a surface level. more importantly, kids seem to be using those phrases because they think that’s what they’re expected to do rather than because they are genuinely interested in discussing their ideas.


so what can you do to help lift the level of discourse besides posting talk stems? here are some things that have helped us to lift the level of discourse in our class and engage students in more meaningful ways:

1) start discussion with a  whole-class conversation around a class read aloud. while we think that discussion should happen in a variety of settings: partners, small group and whole group, we think whole group is a good place to start. (our typical movement through the discussions is with whole-class, partners, read aloud clubs, and then book clubs.) beginning with whole group helps to establish norms for conversation in our classroom and also gives a model for what a conversation can look like once the students have broken into smaller groups. when we have students engage in whole group discussions, we put several scaffolds in place to start this work and support it so that the talk is as high level as possible with as little of us having to stop and manage the conversation as possible. to scaffold this work, we:

a) start by using a read aloud and asking everyone to jot an idea from the read aloud. we can give kids a question to consider where they have to take a stand or we might ask them to center their idea around a particular character. here’s the key: in order to have good discussions, the ideas need to be worth discussing. if the idea is really just stating the obvious, like after listening to the giving tree, if students are asked to jot their ideas about why shel silverstein gave the book that title, then you’ll likely hear a chorus of “i agree,” or “i think that, too,” after ideas are being shared. if, instead, you angle the question a little more, to be something like, “do you think it was the right thing for the tree to give so much to the boy?” you’ll likely have more interesting ideas that will lead to a richer discussion.

b) preface the talking stems we give as a “way to enter the conversation” and list 1-2 stems for each path. it might look something like this, on individual copies for students or a class chart:

When you agree, try:

•  I agree because…

•  A part of the text that shows that is…

•  What you said is important because…

•  That matters because…

•  An example of that in the text is…

•  A new idea that gives me is…

When you disagree, try:

•  I disagree because…

•  I thought something different…

•  The way I see it is…

•  But I’m thinking…

•  I wonder…

•  I thought…because…

When you want others to participate:

•  Does anyone have something to add?

When you want to clarify:

•  In other words…

•  I have a question about what you said…

•  Why do you think that?

we’ve also printed these artifacts on labels and then put them on an index card for each student, with “agree” on one side and “disagree” on the other, to keep in their reader’s notebook pocket.

however you share these stems with students, it supports them in think ingabout what they’re trying to accomplish. they can think about whether they are trying to agree with a classmate or offer an opposing view. or they may need to prompt others to join in or clarify what someone else is saying. it makes their talk more purposeful (by thinking about the purpose of what there saying) and also more academic (providing them with more sophisticated language or phrases).

c) provide brief, explicit teaching of vocabulary that support students in entering a discussion. if you’re asking students to discuss the characters in a text, for example, you might choose to introduce some precise vocabulary that would help students to describe characters rather than vocabulary that is used in the text, since the words in the text are often learned best in context. for example, when we are going to discuss the characters in Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, we introduce words like cunningoptimistic, and pessimistic. once students have been introduced to these words, they begin to see the connections between these words and the characters and  begin to use them in discussion. in one classroom we worked in recently, teachers came away in awe that english language learners could engage in such high level discussions when given this type of support. what was different for these students was that not only did they have the stems to begin a discussion but they had the vocabulary to finish the stems. the vocabulary support was a game changer for these students. they were learning new words that they were able to practice using right away.

2) once students are having discussions more independently (specifically during book clubs), we sometimes have students record their discussions. they set up a small flip camera or iPad and then begin their discussion. at first, they can be a little self conscious, but with practice, they forget about the camera, and that’s when they can harness the power of self assessment. after the discussion or book club meeting, they can watch their discussion and look at it with lenses like:

-is there one person who is overpowering the discussion or one person who isn’t getting a chance to say much at all?

-are they sticking with a topic for at least one round, maybe more? we teach our students that they should be “catching” ideas and not just bouncing from one idea to the next like popcorn.

-are they spending the whole discussion on the topic or have they’ve moved on quickly to their recess plans?

students can use their self assessment to set goals for future conversations. we’ve found that this reflection and goal setting can really help focus and lift the level of their conversations and that they feel more accountable to the goals because they’re the ones setting it for themselves.

Powrful partner talk game if catch-2

a chart made after students did some reflection and self-assessment – things they noticed partners did when they caught ideas rather than popcorning. students used this chart to set goals for their partnership’s future conversations.

3) as with all scaffolds, talk stems need to be modeled to show students how to use them and limited so they don’t just become a tool that students go through like a to-do list. we spend time fish-bowling effective discussion using the talk stems with each other and having student partnerships model effective discussion with talk stems as well. we expect that students will use the talk stems until they’ve internalized the language to engage in discussion. once that happens, we don’t expect to see the artifacts or charts used as much or at all.

moving from forced conversation to rich, organic discussions definitely takes time and practice but, it can be done, and done well, and there’s little that feels more exciting as a teacher than hearing rich conversation around text between classmates.

 

 

 

 

 

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