Friday, July 25, 2014

lift the level of classroom talk

I've been reading this book:

getting ready for a PD I'm doing next week with one of the other Lit Coaches in my district. It's really good and I'm going to share five cool things I've learned!

(Funny story - yesterday's post was five reasons why I think The Giver (the movie) will fall far below my expectations. Definitely wrote that because I thought Friday was yesterday. You know it's summer when you don't know what day it is! and that's awesome! Anyways, if you want to check that out, click here!)

But now, five things you can do to lift the level of conversation in your classroom this upcoming school year:

A Paradigm Shift

It's not about sharing right answers but about growing ideas. Children need to get their thoughts out. It's so important when building a classroom of purposeful talk that lifts thinking from literal retells to inferential thinking that children know that instead of trying to share the right answer, they are instead listening to their peers with intent, pursuing a line of thinking, and negotiating meaning together. It's about growing ideas!

It starts with the way we engage students in conversation. Instead of asking kids to tell their partner something, ask them to "build a conversation" around a specific topic. Nichols explains why: "'Build a conversation with your partner' conveys a very different message than does 'Tell your partner what you are thinking.' Tell is a one-way experience, building a conversation implies give and take of thought that grows" (p.49).

This "build a conversation" is one of the biggest take-aways I have from this book. It's amazing how the way we phrase things can make something as simple as the turn and talk so much more powerful!

Listen With Intent

Is this you: You have a discussion with your whole group of kids and as the teacher, you want to make the ideas of the class very comprehensible for everyone, so you repeat and/or rephrase what the kids say out to the whole group? I totally did that. Probably all the time. Now that I've read this book, I will definitely...

hahhah #oldschool

If you're a kid in the class of a teacher who restates everything, do you think you'll listen to your peers? Of course not - you know your teacher is going to stay it again, and better, so it's okay to *not* listen to your peers. In a classroom where accountable talk lifts thinking to higher levels of learning, children are taught to listen to their peers and to clarify when they need to.

Nichols says, "To listen with intent, children must learn that, once someone starts talking, their hands go down; they temporarily 'park' their thinking, and focus on the idea being shared. Most certainly, some children will forget their thought as they listen, but the process of learning to listen with intent is far more valuable than one idea about one text. And, over time, the children do become stronger at holding on to their own thinking while simultaneously listening to others and engaging with the others' thoughts" (p. 42).

Now, this is not to say that you should never clarify. It just can't happen all the time. Kids have to be held accountable for listening to their peers!

Keeping Lines of Thinking Alive

I mentioned above that children need to be taught to pursue a line of thinking. You know how you try to have a discussion with your class? And, especially with the younger kiddos, they all want to share things on topic, but all different answers that don't go together? As a teacher, it's hard - you want to value everyone's ideas, so you want to hear from everyone, but at the same time, you want to build an idea with the whole class. Here's a non-negotiable for a classroom where talk lifts learning: We have to expect that students will listen with intent and then stay focused on a single idea.

In the book it reminds us, "So, when Miriam shares her thoughts, we cannot allow Samuel to say, 'Well, I think....' and go off in a different direction. We have to say, 'Hold on - what do you think about Miriam's idea?' (p. 43)

It's time to model, practice, and provide feedback on students so that they get used to following one line of thinking until the idea is built to it's capacity.

Negotiate Meaning

This is the heart of accountable talk - the place where we want to get kids. To get here though, kids have to listen with intent and follow a line of thinking. But once they can do that, then the real magic happens! 

We know that reading is an interpretation that is based on the knowledge and experiences we each bring to the text as we read it. Because of that, each person with see the text through a slightly different lens, shaded by all that they bring with them. When a group shares a text, there will be varying interpretations, and that's great! So, while sharing a story, children will be encouraged to bring their ideas to the group, ground them with evidence from the text, but then be flexible in their thinking as they hear the thoughts of others. 

Nichols continues, "When keeping a line of thinking alive and negotiating meaning, total agreement is neither necessary no always possible. What children do need to learn is a healthy respect for differences of opinion when the other point of view has strong evidence, and a willingness to consider alternative views even if they are not swayed in the end. Listening to ideas that are different from ours helps us to look at situations with new eyes" (p. 46).

It's great when we can see situations in new ways. Just yesterday on my blog, I shared an interpretation of the ending of The Giver that I didn't know about until the third time I read the book. That new idea changed my line of thinking about the ending and made me love it even more. I would have never had that idea without having a conversation with the librarian that I worked with my first year of teaching! We constantly negotiate meaning as we learn, and need to share that with our students!

The Classroom Environment

This kind of work cannot take place without a classroom environment that supports it. First and foremost, a gathering place is needed, one where students can sit in a circle and all see each other. It's essential to create this kind of space in your classroom if you hope for your conversations to flourish in this way! Nichols points out that "facing each other strengthens communication by allowing for eye contact and nonverbal communication, and allows us to weigh the reactions of others to our ideas" (p. 38).

So that's just the tip of the iceberg with this book, but if you are a D100 teacher, please join Lauren and I next Tuesday at noon for 3 hours on accountable talk!

What do you all think? Are any of these ideas new for you, too? Please share!


  1. I purchased Comprehension Through Conversation via Amazon just the other day because of your last post. I'm looking forward to receiving it in the mail and diving in! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Sorry I'll be missing your next PD, but good luck! Happy Friday, too! ;)

    1. P.S. Your #2 Listen with Intent reminds me of the Collaborative Thinking/Cognitive Coaching PD I attended earlier in the summer. They stressed the same point... ;)

  2. Full House! I love that show- the students do too! I need to cut it out as well... I always repeat what they say. I also like the idea of 'building a conversation' - I need to write that down. thanks!

  3. Thanks for the synopsis on that book, Michelle! The only thing I would add is that besides modeling how you want the students to build a conversation, also give them sentence frames to start their conversations with--these can be index cards that they hold or a list on the board/chart paper/in their binders ;)

    Ventaneando: A Window Into First Grade Bilingüe

  4. I've never heard of that book, but I'll have to check it out! I’m gearing up for a big giveaway on my blog on August 11 - come stop by so you don’t miss it!!
    Beyond The Gradebook


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