Building Community through Discussion

Class Discussion Norms

(In my class, these become our Community Norms and replace any “rules”)

A world community painted on hands with doves
Build a community of empathy and caring in your classroom through academic discussion.
  • Equity of Voice: Monitor your airtime. As a group member you are responsible to be a speaker AND a listener. You are also responsible to invite others to speak. Equal(ish) airtime is the goal. Our community values all voices.
  • Active Listening
: Eye contact, nodding, being sure you respond to a comment with a related question or comment. Build on what others say. Our community believes everyone should feel heard.
  • Respect for All Perspectives
: You will not agree with everyone’s ideas. Work to understand their thinking. Our community values diverse perspectives.
  • Safety to Share: Your language, tone, body language and overall behavior should invite others to share differing opinions. Approach others’ ideas with curiosity and an open mind. The goal is never to be right, it is always to learn. Our community values safety.
  • Self-monitor use of Electronics
: It’s hard to feel like your ideas are important when you are speaking to the top of someone’s head because they are staring at their phone or their laptop screen. Our community values you and your ideas.

*Adapted from the norms used by the New Teacher Center during the best trainings of my life!


How Can We Create A Community that Values these Norms?

I gradually release student responsibility. Here’s how:

  • Sentence Stems & Explicit Instruction. Require their use. Fishbowl small groups. Analyze their discussion as a class. Data collection tip- let observers record tic marks for certain sentence stems or behaviors you’ve agreed are important. Current Events Discussions are a great way to practice these skills within an organized structure!
  • Conduct whole group discussions- focusing on the norms and sentence stems. REALLY focusing on them. With the same vigor you focus on routines and procedure in September. You hate yourself when you relax about them in November and vow you’ll never do that again. Do better with this. They need the structure to feel safe.
  • Pull small groups for discussions (maybe even half the class). Coach them. Invite a few students to be observers/ analyzers with you. Share the highlights with the whole class. Find observation sheets here.
  • When you feel they are ready, divide the class into small groups (4-5 students max). Let them discuss! While you monitor, record excellent phrases and interactions and share them publicly as soon as it’s over! Provide students an opportunity to reflect on paper after discussion. Download my free Discussion Reflection Activity when you subscribe below.
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Current Events Discussions

Current Events. It’s been done to death. And I get that. What I’m going to share with you is not about current events at all. The context just happens to be Current Events- but it could be anything. It’s about academic discussions- conversation. Do kids really know what that is these days? Chances are they do more discussing in school than out of school- but wouldn’t it be nice if there were more conversations happening everywhere? Fewer interactions, with cell phones in hand- and more eye contact, active listening and questioning? Ahhhhh!!! My teacher brain is in heaven just thinking about it! And my mom brain is pretty psyched too.

Rocks on a beach with text in front of them about discussions

A few years back, I was inspired by some AMAZING parents in my classroom. These parents were involved- I’m talking Family Book Club at 7:00AM before school involved. They would do ANYTHING. As a result, I tried to incorporate some type of authentic home school connection in all of our subject areas. These families inspired this series of activities- and it’s been successful with many classes since… even classes without that crazy- involved crop of parents;) What has remained the same though, is that having quality discussions in class- where everyone is set up for success– leads to more discussion at home (and in the lunchroom, and the hallway, and art class). When kids are engaged in a topic- ENGAGED- and have opportunities to discuss it in a safe space (our classrooms), momentum builds… and those discussions continue. And if we take our time, really go slow to go fast… they take those discussion skills and apply them to all of the relationships in their lives. They debate important topics with integrity, challenge one another, and change the world for the better. (No pressure!)

The Making of  Amazing Current Events Discussions

*Interact with an assigned topic. Listen to a podcast, watch a news broadcast, read something.
*Process that new information. (Complete assigned response sheets in Events in Our World)
*Participate in a class discussion focused on the questions that were answered while processing that new information. Check out my tips!
*Engage an adult in your life in a discussion about the topic. (More details in Events in Our World)
*Participate in a short class discussion focused on new perspectives from that discussion with an adult.
*Reflect & Self-Assess your discussion skills (Get my free guide when you subscribe below)

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My Takeaways

All kids participate when they are prepared and encouraged. For me, that meant that when I had some students who would not do homework- I made sure not to assign steps 1 and 2 as homework. Sometimes I assigned all students that work in class. Other times, I found opportunities for a few students to accomplish these tasks during the day. In all cases- those students participated in class discussions and engaged an adult. Also, I use “an adult in your life” very purposefully. For some students that has been a family member, for others a dance teacher and for others- the adult supervising Office Detention. All of those work.

beach scene with quote about discussions
When I worry about the success of a lesson, my inner control freak comes out. Early in the year, when we are beginning the work of discussions- everyone interacts with the same assigned topic and reads the same article or watches the same news broadcast… in front of me. But, guess what? It’s fine!!!! We make our way to the place where lots of differentiation is happening and my blood pressure stays under control. So- know yourself and do what makes you feel comfortable. Go slow to go fast. You are building a community.
I’ve also learned that kids are proud of their grown ups. Even the “too cool for school kids” who hate getting parent signatures. I’m totally shocked by this EVERY YEAR! I always devote way more time than I mean to in the beginning, to that- “how was last night’s conversation at home” discussion. Eventually kids discuss it in groups, so in 10 minutes everyone gets a chance to share and I can get the highlights. In the beginning though- it’s important that Joey and Alison both share about their discussion publicly if their hands are up. And they beam with pride!!!

 

3 Classroom Discussion Musts

Using Sentence Stems and Explicit Instruction for Classroom Discussions

Teaching discussion skills can be daunting! You know you want productive, positive discussions… but how do you get there? Here’s some of what works for me!

  1. Body Language & Politeness Matter
  • Eye Contact: looking directly at the speaker lets them know they have your attention
  • Inviting Posture: Facing your body toward the speaker with an open posture invites them to share. Avoid crossed arms if you can!
  • Use your group member’s name when addressing them.
    Ex. “Dan, can you tell me more about what you thought the author meant by…”

man crossing arms

2. Paraphrasing lets the speaker know you have listened and understand.

  • So,…
  • In other words,
  • …It sounds like…
  • There are some key points you’re bringing up…
  • From what you’re saying,…

3. Clarifying lets the speaker know you have listened but do not fully understand.

  • Would you tell me a little more about…?
  • Let me see if I understand…
  • Can you tell me more about…
  • It would help me understand if you’d give me an example of…
  • So, are you saying/suggesting…?
  • What do you mean by…?
  • How are you feeling about…?

Let students collect data on their use of these important behaviors! Encouraging them to formally reflect on their performance after each and every discussion instills in them the importance this work.

Sign up for my newsletter to download your FREE Reflecting on Discussions Activity!

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Using Current Events as the Context for Structured Academic Conversations

Building a Classroom Community through Academic Conversations

Getting Students to Use that Feedback

I used to cringe watching students stuff papers into their folders to be lost in the locker abyss… after I had spent so much time thoughtfully providing feedback on their work!! I spend so much time writing thoughtful questions about their math thinking and comments aimed at pushing their scientific curiosity… It was killing me to know that none of my feedback was likely going anywhere but the bottom of a messy locker!!! The ultimate frustration.

A few years ago I decided to tackle this problem head on. I knew that students could learn and grow if they sat, and really thought about my feedback. So- I made some changes. I decided to protect some time for exactly that. How could I expect students to read my notes, review the content and reflect on their learning if I didn’t show them how? Students needed to see that I valued their interaction with those assignments if I wanted them to value it too. And so began RRR&R. I dedicate a class period every few weeks to this and students and parents alike have seen the benefits.

My Goal: Students will think about the content, their work habits, and their progress.
This work is not about simply giving students time to change their answers and fix mistakes. This is the time when students will reflect upon the better answers they can come up with for the science test they weren’t proud of, and realize the study guide would have helped! Students need time and repetition to make those connections and draw those conclusions. And, they need to do it themselves.

Things that Matter

Oftentimes, I give students a few choices of assignments they may work on during this time. I don’t want anyone revising spelling homework or a math quiz with a score of 98% correct- I want students to dig deep and to grow. There are many times that I will notate right on an assignment (when I am grading it) that I want it revised. Sometimes I do that when I think my feedback is particularly powerful or if I feel a student is on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Home School Connection

These assignments and reflections might go home to families (there’s a Celebrating Success at Home Page), but ultimately end up back in student portfolios in our classroom. These make great conversation starters for student and family conferences. Students are empowered by their growth, and the language they develop as they learn to describe their learning is powerful.

I hope that this serves you and your students and families well!

Messy papers with student worksheets on top

Subtraction with Renaming

Trading to Rename
Standards for Math Practice 4

We have moved on to subtraction with renaming (2.NBT.7). You might call this regrouping… but really- if we think literally about what’s happening- we’re also giving the values new names! 50+10 is a different name for 60. So, renaming, regrouping… you know what we’re doing! I’ve been doing a lot of this work with students in small groups and it’s amazing  to see students talking and thinking about making trades, or renaming numbers. In a small group full of dialogue, students physically traded one of the ten rods that makes up 60 for 10 unit so they can more easily subtract 13. We talked about the value of 60 at the start, during and after the trade. Students giggled about how I could still buy exactly 60 $1 ice cream cones- no more, no less; at every phase of the trade. They knew that whether 60 was composed of 6 ten rods (60+0) or 5 ten rods and 10 unit cubes (50+10), its value remained constant. We worked through a few more bare number problems that also required renaming to get more ones and I really emphasized how accurately our recording matched their physical manipulation of the base ten blocks as well as their thinking. Students recorded on white boards, just as I had… and I expected we were good to go! Not so fast. About 1/3 of my students were not able to demonstrate their learning with much independence… even with 60-13. Even if I talked about ice cream cones. These students seemed to rely heavily on the scaffolding that came from our discussion throughout the trading process.  So, I decided they needed a trading center- a place where they could be successful and independent with the skills that this high level work demanded. Here are some of the recording sheets that are guiding their work. I needed them to build confidence and more deeply conceptualize the equality of the value of the numbers they were composing, both before and after renaming. Continue reading “Subtraction with Renaming”

Teaching with Online Discussions

I decided early this year that I have a responsibility to improve the quality of online discussions. As a teacher, I often feel responsible to improve the world I live in. Knowing each year, that I will spend so many hours every day with so many impressionable, mold-able citizens of the future- can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. I know my time working on digital citizenship is well spent though, because my students have digital footprints that are growing faster than they are!

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Teaching students to have respectful, productive academic discussions online follows the same construct as teaching anything else. Students need to be taught explicitly. Students need clear, timely feedback. Students need to play an active role in creating/ designing the expectations. Students need to be exposed to and evaluate samples of the work they are being asked to create. Continue reading “Teaching with Online Discussions”

Phew! They’re Chatty!

One of my biggest take aways from a New Teacher Center Mentor Academy last year was, “the ones who are doing the talking are doing the learning.” The focus of that academy was Coaching for Equity, and we spent timing thinking about Conditions that Support Students with Exceptionalities. Early on in that academy, one of my amazing colleagues suggested that all students are exceptional, and that became our platform as a group. We had previously agreed that the strategies that best support students in Advanced Placement classes, provide similarly rich learning experiences for students who might struggle… so this was not a huge leap for us. I spent the rest of the year seeing opportunities everywhere I looked to get kids talking! If I reflected with teachers about one idea last year it was, “the ones who are doing the talking are doing the learning.” We thought hard in kindergarten, third grade and eighth grade about how to make the most of that statement. And we all watched the videos on the NTC Oral Language Development site together.

As I get to know my new community of sixth graders this year, I find myself reflecting on these ideas daily. We often spend a great deal of energy as teachers, doing what we can to diminish students’ chatter. “If not in September, then when?” we rhetorically ask each other as we defend our systems of consequences. This year, a nagging voice in my head keeps reminding me that, “the ones who are doing the talking are doing the learning.”

Now, I know that the kids who are talking about what happened in PE instead of setting up their desks for my class, are not (in that moment) doing the learning in my classroom. Believe me, I’m not proposing a ban on silent homeroom (how could I survive?), silent moments or organization, or silence anywhere else that it benefits student learning. I am wondering though… how I can capitalize on the fact that these students like to talk.

What I am proposing is that we take the chatter and grow it into academic conversation. Let’s turn these talkers into active listeners! I recognized on Tuesday that I am sharing a room with some very social 11 year-olds this year. Today, after a 60 second turn and talk responding to the prompt, “what do you know about a seed story or a watermelon story,” I was sure this was the right move.

One student raised his hand and said loudly (in a lunchroom voice), “Zachary suggested that a seed story was a story about one small thing that happened, but was really important.” He then turned and looked at Zachary for approval, who nodded, and added, “and I agree.” Next, I did 3 internal cartwheels and I calmly provided specific feedback about the way he used his partner’s name, and how actively he must have been listening to provide such a response, and smiled. Continue reading “Phew! They’re Chatty!”

Reflection: Ain’t nobody got time for THAT!

For the last two years I have been welcomed into many classrooms as a coach, or as my favorite mentor Jan so accurately describes: a thought partner. When she used that language two years ago during our first New Teacher Center Mentor Academy, I had no idea just how connected I would feel to that phrase today. I have partnered with some incredible thinkers over these two years. Some of these thinkers have been my fellow coaches, the teachers I support and their administrators.

Continue reading “Reflection: Ain’t nobody got time for THAT!”

How do your students self-asses?

Lately, I’ve found myself having conversations with many educators who think self-assessment is a good idea… but just aren’t sure about putting it into practice. Consequences of thoughtful self-assessment:

1. Students reflect on their process, performance, actions.

2. Students become more aware of their learning and/ or actions- in the moment!! “Johnny, don’t you ever think before you speak?!?” (which never has any impact, BTW) —-> “Johnny, I noticed you stopped yourself  before responding to Maria (how responsible of you)… tell me a little about your thinking.

3.  Students begin using on the language of the self-assessment in their classroom dialogue. (And I wasn’t even trying to teach content specific vocabulary!!)

Here’s a Scientist’s Self Assessment I plan to use this week in a third grade science class. You’ll notice I’ve embedded a home-school communication component as well!

Here’s a Self and Group Assessment Tool I created and have used successfully with grades 4-8 to encourage academic discussions.

Here’s part of a Behavior Chart Self Monitor program my teammate and I have used for a few years now. We tweak it regularly… The weekly self-assessment and twice quarterly goal setting have really strengthened student- family conversations around progress at school. We use the data (student-collected) as the basis of our Student-Led Family Conferences.

 

Before Open House, we complete this Personal Responsibility Self Assessment on our team. Then, at Open House, we weave in some of the elements of Personal Responsibility that we plan to encourage during the school year in our talks with families. We revisit this list often throughout the year, students add new ideas to it and we track our progress.

Here’s another self-assessment that supports student reflection and analysis around Quality of Work. I like to use it on days that we add work to our portfolios.

I hope you’ll consider trying these out! Modify them to meet your needs and please let me know how they impact your students’ learning.

How are you encouraging reflection, goal-setting and self-assessment?

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SPIDER Web Discussion Strategy

Whether you teach math, social studies or general music- if you want to facilitate truly student-led inquiry in your classroom discussions, you may want to give Alexis Wiggins’ version of the SPIDER Web Discussion strategy a try. She has been refining this strategy for seven years and shares her experiences and her rubrics!

While students are the ones discussing, the teacher is still the referee and master of knowledge, offering up the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another.

Maybe that lesson you have planned for Tuesday of next week needs a kick… Try adding this strategy to your repertoire, and let us know how it goes!!

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