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Friday, October 23, 2015

Say What? Speaking and Listening Boot Camp

As a student, I rarely spoke in class. I was simply too afraid to share my ideas in what I perceived as the hostile environment of my classroom. What if I was wrong? Would the teacher embarrass me? Would another student challenge my answer? I’m pretty sure during a typical week of school, I could go from Monday to Friday without uttering a word in class. As an adult, I’ve gotten better about voicing my ideas. I’ve picked up on some key “conversational moves” through my day-to-day adult interactions, such as navigating through heated discussions with a coworker, working out a compromise with my husband, or negotiating curfew with my daughter. But, to be honest, my conversational moves are not very smooth. And when I think about all the time I spent in class watching my teachers prompt and pull kids through a series of prescribed questions for which there were one right and several wrong answer, I can’t help but wonder if my moves could have been better had I practiced the art of conversation in the training ground of my childhood classrooms. Unfortunately for me, there was never time for authentic, student-centered discussions in my classes. As a student, I was simply too busy taking lecture notes, listening to teacher talk, and freaking out about being called on to really notice that something big was missing from my life at school.

In his book In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, Kelly Gallagher urges educators to place our students’ needs rather than test preparation at the forefront of our instruction. Gallagher argues that “hitching instruction only to what is being tested can be harmful to the overall development of our students” (161). In the previous years of No Child Left Behind, speaking and listening skills have typically been neglected from high stakes exams, leaving many teachers to place little emphasis on them in their classrooms. But talk matters in education and in life. The Common Core State Standards recognize the need for students to “have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains” (CCSS). They’ve dedicated an entire strand of standards to Speaking and Listening arguing firmly that “high school graduates will depend heavily on their ability to listen attentively to others so that they are able to build
on others’ meritorious ideas while expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (CCSS). Nevertheless, whether or not speaking and listening skills are valued in the Common Core State Standards matters little to Kelly Gallagher. He has chosen to place more emphasis on speaking and listening in his classroom “because these skills are foundational to becoming literate human beings” (161).

Talking Helps us Learn

The person talking is the person learning. As Bryan Goodwin’s research confirms, students who participate more frequently in class are more likely to be high performers, and those who remain quiet (like elementary school me) tend to do less well (2014).

According to Fisher and Frey, the amount of student talk directly correlates with their achievement. For example, in a study of classrooms with high-achieving students, teachers talked through about 55 percent of the instructional minutes; whereas in classrooms in which students were identified as low achieving, teachers talked through 80 percent of the instructional minutes. If we aren’t giving students opportunities to talk and think, then we are essentially asking students to sit back and relax as passive observers in their learning. We all know the traditional game of school in which the teacher asks questions to which she already knows the answers, kid answers the question, and the teacher evaluates the response as either right or wrong. In this learning environment, “discussions” simply devolve into question and answer session involving the recitation of facts. Thus, people like me learn to accept the role of quiet observer, fearing the public humiliation of getting the wrong answer.

But think about those classroom discussions that weren’t simply conversation with the teacher, but instead gave students a chance to co-construct knowledge, to think critically and collaboratively (Fisher & Frey). During these discussions, students listen to and react to each other’s ideas and further contribute to a group’s reasoning. “Quiet” classrooms don’t mean good classrooms anymore. Teaching and learning hinges on productive student talk.

So Why Aren’t Students Talking?

Breaking away from the well-established, traditional roles of teachers and students can be scary. The teacher feels as though she is giving up some of her control and, to a greater extent, her valuable class time, and students, to be honest, haven’t developed the conversational moves needed to engage in productive classroom discourse. In other words, classroom conversations can be painful experiences for both teachers and students. So we might have good intentions when we engage students in a graded discussion or a Socratic seminar. We might even circle up the chairs and throw out a deep-thinking, juicy question—a question that kids would need to talk over, chew on, and work out an answer together. But, unfortunately, these discussions often get us nowhere because we’ve neglected to teach effective speaking skills first. We assign speaking, but we don't teach speaking.

If we expect students to learn to speak, we need to teach them how. This requires teachers to provide daily opportunities for students to speak, combined with explicit instruction about the “conversation moves” good speakers make as they talk.

Speaking and Listening Boot Camp

At Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Communications teacher Mark Weiland has developed a speaking and listening boot camp where students learn, develop, and practice the conversational moves needed to initiate a discussion, build off the ideas of others, provide feedback, and assert their own opinions. As every teacher knows, getting kids to engage in productive talk is not easy. Nevertheless, through trial and error and lots of research, Mark has transformed his room into a training ground where productive and “accountable talk” is the norm (Fisher & Frey 2012).

Mark’s Boot Camp Routine

Provide Meaningful Tasks:
When we began training students for structured class discussions, we quickly realized the importance of choosing meaningful, interesting, and relevant topics for discussion. We didn’t want to overwhelm students with new content during the beginning stages of training, so instead, we focused on questions that would get kids talking without the fear of getting a “wrong” answer. To facilitate these discussions, we turned to Dr. Spencer Kagan and his research on cooperative learning. For the past couple of years, our school district has begun implementing Kagan’s cooperative learning structures to help increase student engagement and promote a deeper understanding of content. As part of this program, teachers are encouraged to provide opportunities for team building to help create the “enthusiasm, trust, and mutual support” needed for effective collaboration (1999, p. 3). To help facilitate our team building activities and get kids talking, we used several of Kagan’s higher-level thinking questions designed to “stretch students’ minds” and “release their natural curiosity about the world” (1999, p. 3). Using the cooperative structure of Fan-N-Pick, we prompted groups of four to take turns asking and answering these higher-level thinking questions. For this structure, Student #1 fans out a stack of question cards and asks Student #2 to “pick a card.” Student #2 picks a question cards and reads it aloud to the group. Student #3 takes a few seconds of thinking time and then answers the question. Student #4 praises and paraphrases the thinking that went into the answer. After each round, the students switch roles so that everyone has the opportunity to answer questions and respond to each other. Some of the questions that we use for this training activity include the following: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, whom would you choose? What qualities do you look for in a best friend? If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be and why?

Not only do students enjoy answering these questions, but the questions also provide an opportunity for students to learn more about each other. After a few rounds of this getting-to-know-you style Fan-N-Pick, we brought the full class back together again and began integrating explicit teaching of a key speaking and listening move: respectfully disagreeing.

Explicitly Teach Conversation Moves:
According to Fisher & Frey (2014), in highly productive student-led conversations, “members make claims, offer evidence for those claims, seek clarification, offer counterclaims, and reach consensus or identify points of disagreement.” When students work together on a task or to solve a problem, they are going to disagree; nevertheless, we can teach them to disagree respectfully, or in other words, to “disagree without being disagreeable” (Fisher & Frey, 2014, p. 21).  For this task, Mark brainstormed with students a list of sentence starters that students could turn to when they needed help framing their ideas in a less negative and more inviting way. For example, instead of simply telling another student that his ideas are wrong, a student could show that he is willing to listen and learn more about the issue by stating, “I see your point, but please provide another example to help me understand” or “While you make an interesting point, I have another way of looking at the situation. Let me explain . . . .”

Once Mark familiarized students with examples and models of how to disagree respectfully, he put students back in groups of four to practice their new conversational move by once again using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Fan-N-Pick. For this session, students follow the same format as before; however, instead of having Person #4 praise and paraphrase the thinking that went into the answer, Person #4 must respectfully disagree with the answer by using one of the sentence starters. For this activity to be most effective, the question cards should include topics that lend themselves well to a debate. Here are some of the questions we used: Should students get paid for getting good grades? Should cell phones be allowed in school? Should the school day be lengthened?

Another critical conversational move is the ability to agree with someone while keeping the conversation moving along. Through his past experience observing student-led discussions, Mark noticed that often when students agree with each other, their conversations simply come to a halt. For example, when discussing whether or not students should get paid for good grades, a student might claim, “Giving kids money for grades ruins their motivation to do well.” In response, another students might simply nod his head and say, “Yes, I agree,” offering nothing more to advance the conversation. This student has essentially killed the discussion because he lacked the conversational moves necessary to helped him build off an idea, ask probing questions, or elicit further evidence. These are skills that require some serious finesse; nevertheless, with practice kids can get there.

Again, Mark worked with students to brainstorm a list of sentence frames to help scaffold their responses when agreeing with another student and furthering the conversation. Here are some of the sentence frames we used:

I was thinking about your idea that _______, and I was wondering what if _____

I agree with your idea that ________, and I would like to clarify by adding…

What you said about ________ made me think of…

Mark turned to the Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure once again to give students an opportunity to practice their new moves. For this session, Student #4 had to agree with the ideas of Student #3 and keep the conversation flowing.

The Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure helps students to develop the habits of effective speaking and listening—but it does so with a heavy amount of teacher scaffolding. As Mark’s students began improving their moves, Mark began weaning them off of the teacher scaffolds by changing up the cooperative learning structure to allow for more student-controlled interaction. For example, using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Talking Chips, Mark had students engage in a small group discussion in which teammates place a “talking chip” in the center of the team table each time they talk. Students may not interrupt each other and therefore must practice how to listen respectfully. Once students run out of chips, they may not talk again until all teammates have used their chips. This structure regulates discussion, holding all students accountable for participating while keeping at bay those students with the tendency to dominate the conversation.

Use Fishbowl Discussions:
Through Mark’s careful planning, modeling, and scaffolding of speaking and listening moves, students graduate into fishbowl discussions in which an inner circle of students works together through a topic or question while an outer circle of students observe, listen carefully, and offer feedback. For these discussions, Mark uses many of the suggestions from Paideia Active Learning, which promotes Socratic seminars, such as Mark’s fish bowl discussions, as a rigorous approach to instruction “designed to improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills.” Before each fishbowl discussion, Mark pairs a member of the fishbowl with a partner from the outer circle. The partners help each other prepare for their discussion by sharing their questions, thoughts, and evidence and bouncing ideas off of each other. During the discussion, the outer circle partners jots down comments on a list of discussion look-fors, such as making sure students talk directly to other students rather than the teacher, stay focused on the discussion, invite other people into the discussion, and share air time equally with others.  After the discussion partners, have time to reflect with each other on their speaking and listening moves, using the look-for sheet to help guide their debriefing.

Build a Speaking and Listening Community:
The students in Mark’s communication class have developed some pretty smooth conversational moves. This is due in part to Mark’s explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills but, more importantly, because he built a speaking and listening community in his classroom. Students soon realized that they were all responsible for helping each other become smooth talkers. If one student struggles with a move, the class works together to help guide that student as he masters the new speaking skill. Unlike my elementary school experiences, the students in Mark’s classes don’t compete with each other to get the right answer, raising their hands for the teacher’s attention while secretly hoping the kid who does get called on gets it wrong (we all have to admit to resorting to this type of behavior at some point—we can’t help it! Most traditional classrooms promote a competitive climate). If I had the opportunity to work on my conversation moves through the guidance and support of my teachers and fellow students, I think school would have been a much different, more engaging experience for me.


Common Core state standards initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking Volumes. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 18-23.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Gallagher, K. (n.d.). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.
Goodwin, B. (2014). Research Says Get All Students to Speak Up. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 82-83.
Kagan, M. (1993). Higher-level thinking questions: Personal and social skills. San Clemente, CA: Kagan.
Paideia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Avoiding the Educational Pit and the Pendulum (Part One): Putting the Reader Back Inside Our Reading Lessons

        When you hear the word pendulum what thoughts or feelings immediately come to mind?  I would argue that your response to this question depends on your life experiences.  Because my perspective is that of former middle and high school English teacher turned literacy coach,  the first thing to pop into my mind is the classic tale by Edgar Allan Poe:  "The Pit and The Pendulum."  The story, which is set during the Spanish Inquisition, finds the narrator stuck inside an unlit cell awaiting a morbid, torturous death.  Later, after losing consciousness, he awakens only to discover that he is tied to a board with a razor-sharp pendulum swinging above him, slowly moving closer and closer to his body with every swing.  The narrator describes the pendulum as "massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air."   Thus, for me, the word pendulum immediately connotes negative feelings and emotions as a I think of anxiety this narrator must feel as he attempts to concoct a plan to survive.

       If you are an educator who is unfamiliar with Poe's story, the word pendulum may still cause you to experience feelings of despair and helplessness but for different reasons.  The word may instantly bring to mind that trite pendulum-swinging metaphor that has been used to describe every paradigm shift occurring in the last thirty years.  Imagine yourself being strapped to a board,  the ceiling pendulum in Poe's story drawing nearer to your own restrained body with every shift:  The shift from phonics to whole language.  Hisssssssss....  Basal reading instruction to guided reading back to whole class instruction.   Hisssss.....hisssss....hissss.  Leveled text instruction to scaffolded instruction using grade level text.  Hissss.... Touchy, feely reader response theory lessons to sterile, formulaic text-dependent question lessons.  Hissssssssss..... and the pendulum continues to swing.  Can we really fault the experienced educator who has been around the block a while when he feels cynical and distressed as the latest educational buzzword starts blowing up social media? If this were the 90's and I were still interested in making text to text connections, I might suggest that these senior educators may be experiencing similar emotions as Poe's narrator does while the pendulum closes in on him:  "a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. "  Alas, though, the 90's have passed, so I must forego these text to text connections and - in true PARCC fashion - compare the themes of the selections instead:  similar feelings of impending doom can result from both physical and creative restraint.  Hisssssss.....hissssss.
          Please do not misconstrue my message to mean that I am not an advocate of change.  On the contrary, I am a firm believer in the philosophy of Maya Angelou who once said, "When you know better, you do better."  Many of the swings of the pendulum have been the result of passionate educators recognizing current flaws in the educational system and desiring to change them for the better. A commendable effort.  In a constantly evolving world flooded with technology and new literacies, it would be irresponsible and even naive of me to suggest that our own instructional practices remain stagnant. 
         My point, however, is this: in education, we often throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Perhaps subconsciously, as a system, we at times neglect to keep the good parts of what we are already doing when we shift to a new paradigm.  Let's consider for a moment, the current shift from reader response theory to those CCSS exemplar lessons consisting solely of text dependent questions. Why must one replace the other?  A few years back, a professor of mine hit the nail on the head when she reflected that the research surrounding what quality reading instruction should look like hasn't really wavered in the past fifty years.  The research usually supports the middle.  Students need a little of this and a little of that.  What school systems do with the research, however, is often where the problem lies.  For example, while whole language theorists are strong proponents of helping students to acquire whole words at once versus first learning sounds in isolation,  they have  never advocated for the complete removal of decoding and letter-sound instruction that were once key components of phonics instruction.  Instead of blending the best of both approaches and teaching down the middle, many systems chose to swing the pendulum in one drastic move, eliminating phonics instruction entirely in favor of what they believed to be the new whole language approach.  Although this abandonment of phonics was never the intent of the whole language approach, day to day practices in many schools proved otherwise, resulting in negative reactions to those whose children survived the days of anti-phonics classrooms.  Hissssssssss.
               Instead of a swinging pendulum, what if educational leaders across our nation elected to take more of a middle-ground stance?  What if we cultivated classrooms that valued the reader and their visceral responses to a text as much as we valued a student's ability to analyze the structural choices the author has made in her piece? 
 Even better:  what if we helped students to discover that through their analysis of the author's craft and structure they are more able to appreciate and respond to a text on a personal level?  If we don't do this, I fear we run the risk of committing what Kelly Gallagher has dubbed Readicide: the unfortunate slaughtering of quality texts . Nobody wants to watch beautiful language being mauled to death via over-analyzation or witness the homicide of texts students once found enjoyable via a relentless barrage of text-dependent questions.

No matter how vehemently the writers of various Common Core State Standards exemplar lessons work to remove the reader response element from instruction by limiting the types of questions the teachers asks to only the text-dependent variety, readers will continue to play a pivotal role in the the experiences they have with text.  The unique experience of readers is what requires those of us who write about literature to use present tense, the idea being that the experience is happening in the here and now for each reader each time a text is read. In fact, it is because of these unique experiences readers bring to the same text that allow book club members who have all read the same book to engage in passionate yet contentious discussions.  It is because of unique reader experiences that the same poem -- or even lines from a poem -- can be interpreted by readers to mean entirely different things with not one idea being more "correct" than another.  For instance, in a discussion of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," John Green points out that Frost's  intended tone was meant to be frivolous, poking fun at the indecisive. Green explains that most people, however, choose to read the poem more seriously; thus, they alter the theme.  Neither reading of the poem can be considered superior as both are grounded in the text.  Thus, people's unique experiences shape the text.
Watch John Green's Discussion Here  

   Reader response is alive and much needed, despite the current trend in education to squelch its existence.  It is the reason why we are drawn to texts in the first place, why we react emotionally to the experiences of made-up characters and why we desire to engage in discussion with others who have read the same text.  And while text-dependent questions are certainly crucial to the development of essential literacy skills of students in our classrooms, we have completely missed the mark if we begin and end with those types of prescriptive questions without also engaging in a conversation about how our students now feel about the world or even how their perception of life has been altered having had a new experience through text.  Don't believe me?  When was the last time your book club got together and asked questions that began with "Cite text evidence to prove that...."  or "Explain how the author developed the conflict..."  My guess is that you would quickly excuse yourself and find a new book club if these questions were the crux of the conversations. 

    The Common Core State Standards shift has brought with it an array of good:  more explicit instruction of  Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, an increase in rigor of both texts and tasks, vertical alignment of standards,  and a focus on developing critical argument skills in both speaking in writing that will enable students to communicate their viewpoints effectively to others both in school and in the workplace.  Students are synthesizing texts of multiple modalities to support their arguments and evaluating the credibility of the viewpoints of others instead of simply accepting them at face value.  The Common Core, when implemented well, is a great thing for students.  I ask, though, that when situations arise that leave you questioning the level of engagement of students in your classroom, you pause and ask yourself a few questions:  what can I add to my lesson to increase student motivation?  Have I built choice and student interest into my lesson?  How am I fostering a love of reading in my students today?  Have I asked my students for their honest opinions about what they have read?  How have I found opportunities to share with students things I am currently reading and enjoying?  Do I know what my students are reading when I'm not assigning it?  When was the last time my students and I read something together for the sheer purpose of appreciating its beauty?   
         Some people might argue that with all the new standards and reporting procedures and teacher evaluations tied to student performance, the time to cultivate a love for reading and learning no longer exists.  I would argue that not only do we need to make time to develop our students love of reading, but that this goal needs to be made a top priority if we wish for our students to be successful.  We know that students who read more, perform at higher levels; this research remains crystal clear.  Then, let's stop worrying about which of these is the chicken and which is the egg and help all of our students to view reading as a vehicle to self discovery and identity formation. 
I'm pretty sure that the books I've read have left more than a small impression on me.  They've shaped who I've become and how I feel about the events that happen to me.  I'm also pretty sure that if my own classroom experiences as a student had focused on worksheets and text dependent questions with no opportunities for me to cultivate my love for the written word, I would've hated school.   I would've had to come up with an escape plan that may not have involved getting rats to gnaw the ropes from the board I was strapped to as the narrator in "The Pit and The Pendulum" must do,  but my own plan definitely would have been born out of the same frantic, desperation. In the "Pit and the Pendulum," a portrait of Father Time exists on the pit's ceiling, reminding the narrator that time is limited:  a plan must be devised. The time our students will spend with us in our classrooms this year is also limited.  The time is now to consider the impact you would like to have on your students' relationships with text and create a plan.