In my work as a literacy coach, I have the privilege of working with teachers as they implement elements of reading and writing workshop into their classrooms. Right now I’m working with a team of 7th grade ELA teachers in book clubs centered around social issues.
You know that feeling you have when you unleash your students into the world of small group discussions? You’re excited because you know they’re smart and they’ve actually been reading the book. But you’re nervous because, well, they’re kids. And you’re not in control and that’s always a little nerve-wracking.
That’s how we felt on the first day of book club discussions last week. Students were engaged in their book club texts, reading with vigor. As a class, they had discussed the ways how books can be windows, mirrors and doors. Students had learned about point of view and perspective. On this day, they were to talk in small groups about what they’d read so far.
We provided students with a stack of questions from the Table Topics cards I learned about in a tweet from Tricia Ebarvia and we stepped back to watch the magic. Soon we noticed that, well, there wasn’t a lot of magic.
To be fair, it was magic-ish. Students were eager to share. With some nudging from teachers, students used the vocabulary from the perspective mini-lesson. But these normally talkative kids just didn’t have much to say beyond “I really like this” or “It’s interesting.” Before we resorted back to teacher-driven “discussion,” we took a deep breath and went back to our roots, to the core of what we know works in a workshop classroom: Choice. Time. Explicit teaching.
We were on the right track: Students made choices about the texts they were reading. We had carved out time for their reading to “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1983) . But, we’d forgotten about the teaching! Sometimes we teachers get so busy setting up the conditions for success, we forget the key to it.
Armed with this realization, we developed a plan. We needed to explicitly teach students the art of conversation. So this week when we get back (after snow days and sick days!), we’re going to try a new approach.
Models: We know that when students are learning something new, they need a model to begin to envision how success might look. We are going to watch a video of 4th grade students having a book club discussion. Together we’ll create an anchor chart in our reading notebooks titled What We Notice About Good Book Club Discussions. I know, though, that having this list of traits isn’t going to be enough for the thinking to transfer to action.
Naming the Moves: We know from Katie Wood Ray that naming things gives them power and makes the moves accessible. So as students think about the kinds of moves they notice the students from the video making, we will go back and name them. Inspired by the moves Joseph Harris outlines in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things With Text, we decided we want students to be able to:
- Agree & Explain
- Connect & Explain
- Counter & Explain
- Ask Clarifying Questions
The first three are moves we’d like to introduce in the next writing unit when we focus on using evidence in their own writing (modeled after the super smart work happening in the National Writing Project C3 Writers Program). We decided to bring these moves into the discussions as a way to front-load. As students discuss what they notice, we’ll be intentional about using this language to name those noticings.
Nurturing: We know that as students first try out these moves, they’ll need support. We don’t want to develop an over-reliance on thinking stems, but we want to help bridge theory into action. We will invite students to paste the sentence stems handout into their Writer’s Notebooks and to keep it handy as they talk. We are reminded that when you first learn something, it’s okay to feel a little clumsy, but the only way to get better is to keep practicing.
I’m excited to spend time talking with students tomorrow, to dig into texts, and to teach them how to uncover their thinking.
Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH, area. She loves connecting with other educators, including on Twitter @angelafaulhaber. Her perfect day includes snuggling with her three kids, talking about school with her math teacher husband, and eating nachos with her girlfriends.