Today is a day worth talking about.
For one, it’s been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell. Sixteen years.
For two, much of Florida is waking up to the terror of Hurricane Irma, probably in the dark, without power–but not without hope. And Texas is still recovering from Harvey’s rage. But they’re Texas, so they’re tough.
Days like today should never become routine. And these are the things we should be talking about in our English classrooms. But to have the heavy talks, of course, we need to be able to listen.
“English teachers have rare opportunities to get to the deep, real work of an education,” Mitch Nobis writes. Yes, we do.
We have a multitude of opportunities for important, valuable, world-changing talk to happen in our schools. Before these kinds of conversations can happen, we need to be comfortable being vulnerable, truly listening to one another, and confidently articulating our thoughts–and then revising them.
Reasons like these are why I make talk a priority in my classroom every day. In such a digital world, it’s not as easy to get kids making noise as it used to be. Where early in my teaching career I had to work to settle down a chatty room, now I have to exhort myself to hear the sweet sounds of uncertain arguments and not the click of a quickly-locked iPhone.
Like all other skills we want our students to master, thoughtful speaking and listening is something we must teach. Rather than being frustrated by our students’ silence, we need strategies for helping kids close their apps and open their hearts and minds to one another. Here are four of the most effective I’ve used this year:
Quickwrites that make us vulnerable – Getting to the heart of our wonders and fears and hopes and dreams in our writer’s notebooks builds community, sets a precedent for the type of writing we’ll be doing, and gets down on paper what’s really important: who we are, and how hard it can be to say that definitively. Strong mentor texts that invite this vulnerability are essential–imitating Mari Andrew’s illustrations is a great place to start. Writing about our scars is another favorite early-year activity. These first pages in notebooks don’t often get shared, but they get kids to do the early scaffolding work of honest thinking that leads to honest talk.
Turn and talk and LISTEN – The “turn and talk” directive is a common one in ELA classrooms, I hope, but I kind of want to change it to “look at your partner and LISTEN.” I tell students before a turn and talk that we’ll be sharing what we hear, so the purpose shifts from drafting their thinking through talk to expanding their understanding through listening. After the chatter has subsided, I ask students, “Who heard something great? Share with us what you learned from your partner.” This is a subtle shift, but one that cues students to turn their ears away from their own voices and toward their peers’.
On the record strategy – Written feedback is amazing, but if I’ve learned anything from doing a million reading and writing conferences over the years, it’s that the power of talking with someone about your thinking is incredible. For this reason, when I ask students to conduct peer writing conferences, I ask them to record themselves. Using apps on their phones, kids begin this practice by simply talking about the student’s writing they’re reading, but gradually progress to leaving one another specific, recorded feedback to be replayed at home. While “on the record,” I find that students become much more deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in their feedback by simply slowing down their thinking.
Silent discussion – An early mentor of mine used this strategy to scaffold his students up to sophisticated Socratic seminars, and I still love using it. Students bring in a written response to a question, or a draft of a piece we’re working on, or a favorite quote from their independent reading book they want to mine. We hang these nameless papers all around the classroom, then kids get their earbuds, a stack of post-its, and a pen and progress into a silent discussion. The classroom is magically quiet–almost sacred. This is my favorite part.
First, they circle the classroom, writing lengthy responses to their peers’ thinking on large post-its. Each student receives two responses this way. Then, we do a counter-clockwise circle with small post-its where more feedback is offered in the form of short remarks or questions. Each paper receives three additional comments in this round. The following day, I redistribute the papers to their original writers and watch students drink up the feedback, which is made all the more valuable because it didn’t come from me.
I hope these four strategies for student talk make your classroom a little more conversation-friendly this week. Please share with us how you get your teens talking in the comments, on Facebook, or via Twitter!
Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident. She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, no-bake cocoa oatmeal cookies (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.