When many people think of English teachers, they think about the teaching of reading and writing skills. In New York State (and any other state that has the Common Core Learning Standards), English teachers are expected to focus not only on reading and writing skills, but also listening, speaking, and language skills. These three additional skills can be constantly practiced in any classroom when teachers incorporate time for student conversations.
Conversations shouldn’t be incorporated into curriculum just because they are in the standards, for they have many benefits. Adding time for students to discuss any questions or confusion they have can help students better comprehend a difficult text. Having a thoughtful, productive discussion can help students think about texts or ideas in new ways, thus allowing them to write well-developed analytical pieces. So if conversation can be so helpful in a classroom, why aren’t more teachers allowing time for talk?
Having a meaningful whole class discussion means having a teacher in the room who has great classroom management skills. Those conversations can include 20-30 students, and without the proper rules and guidelines they can easily get out of hand. When this happens, teachers may not see their benefit, and thus cut them out of their curriculum. Conversations don’t always have to be the same way every time though. There are numerous ways to have meaning conversations that foster students’ thinking:
1. Written conversations – What is a “written conversation”? It’s just what you think: a conversation between two or more people that is written down. Students could discuss a topic and pass a piece of paper back and forth to respond to one another’s opinions and ideas. Students could also share a Google Doc and type their responses to one another, and, when done, share it with their teacher. In 2014, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels wrote a book called The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12. In it, they state that written conversations are extremely beneficial because they foster positive student interactions. The chance to talk with peers is one of the main reasons students enjoy coming to school. The best part about these conversations for a teacher is that the teacher doesn’t have to try to hear bits and pieces of many different conversations. Instead he/she can collect the conversations and write feedback of his/her own.
2. Incorporate technology – Many teachers are starting to use more and more technology in their classrooms, and students love it! There are some wonderful websites and apps that allow students to have amazing conversations with one another. One app I am excited to try this year is Verso. Verso is an app that can be used on a smartphone, but there is a website as well. Verso allows students to have anonymous class discussions. Students can comment on their classmates’ responses, not knowing who they are talking to. An anonymous program like this can encourage full participation by all.
Other programs like TodaysMeet and Edmodo also allow for whole class discussion, and they are quite easy to use.
3. The Fishbowl Method and Socratic Seminars – Discussions in the 21st century don’t all have to be written down. All students need to work on their oral language skills, but these conversations don’t have to be traditional. The fishbowl method has been used in both schools and businesses. In this method, a small group of students would arrange their desks in a circle in the center of the room, while the rest of the students surround themselves around the outside of it. While the center circle has a discussion, the outer circle takes notes to share with the whole group later. This method encourages 100% participation, and is less intimidating than having the whole class in one large circle.
With especially difficult texts, I like using Socratic seminars. This type of discussion requires students to be prepared with questions, inferences, connections, and other ideas to spark a discussion about the text. (I talk a lot about this type of discussion in another post about Whole Novels.) Socratic seminars take a lot of practice to do well, especially with 9th graders. I only use this method when we read a difficult text together first. Before reading the text, I tell students about the Socratic seminar they will have afterward. This encourages students to highlight and takes notes as we read together. Like the fishbowl method, this is a student-led discussion, with the teacher only jumping in to prompt more explanation or elaboration. For this type of discussion to run smoothly, rules and guidelines need to be established and practiced. Sentence starters can help if students are unsure about what to discuss.
Whether it’s a quick “turn and talk” or more involved online discussion, students must be having conversations daily in their classes. These conversations improve social skills, and the ideas that are created in these discussions lead to a better understanding of a text, which then can lead to a better writing piece about that text. Yes, we need to prepare our students to read and write well, but we cannot forget about the importance of conversations.