Imagine a little girl with dark curly hair, very thick glasses, and a huge vocabulary. This child came from a family who believed that children had important things to say. A family with a mother, a father, two brothers, and a sister who all shared their views, spoke their minds without hesitation as though their ideas were all important. This same child, who had a big extended family that shared the same values in an even larger social setting. Then, as if that were not enough, another whole layer of family friends also encouraged children to speak their minds and who were genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. Imagine the benefit of having such a rich social language learning environment to grow up in. Couple those lived experiences with voluminous reading and writing and now the child has, even more, to think about, more to say, and more opportunities for self-expression. That is a child who is being immersed in a language learning process that will help her for the rest of her life. How fortunate would that child be? Very. That is my story. That child was me.
The reason why I specialized in literacy is that I wanted to give as many students as possible the same experiences I had growing up. Believing that a school is a place where teachers may cultivate a social learning environment that holds purposeful talk in the highest esteem is very powerful. If you believe that, as I do, then you know we have the power to reshape a child’s life. So you can understand why, it was a real thrill to welcome author/educator, Maria Nichols, to lead #G2Great in a conversation about how to create a process of growing purposeful talk.
What voices are being valued?
Show students that you believe that they have something important to say. Help them believe that their voices matter the most to us and then there will be boundless growth. Children, who feel as though their words hold weight with teachers will be more likely to share and elaborate on their thinking in deeper more meaningful ways. Part of the work is to create equity and access for purposeful talk, and there is a lot we can do in school to make that a reality. Teachers are setting the table for talk by giving space for feedback and reflection. Don’t be afraid of those quiet moments. Be generous, give space for students to process their thinking. Give them the chance to fill that space with their own words.
What do all students think?
Be curious about what students think. Whenever we start to fill in their words for them just stop. Let them go, find out what they really think. Treating classroom talk as you might an inquiry study will help to cull out what they think through lean questioning and wait time. Then if we teach them how to take a questioning stance, we create other “teachers” in the room. We create more opportunities to uncover the collective thinking that is happening in real time. When we use mentor texts that serve to underscore thoughtful talk we add another layer of support to elevate students’ thinking. It is an amazing process.
How can we raise talk to new levels?
Listen to learn first, not to evaluate. Be strategic when planning spaces in conversation to pause and ponder. This not only fortifies stamina, it also models what thoughtful dialogue looks like. Building a culture of “talk” starts when we take the time to reflect on what went well and when we invite students into that reflective process we raise the quality of purposeful talk over time. Purposeful talk requires a plurality of perspective to inform how it is going. It is not just what teachers think, teachers are one part of a broad community of thinkers. The talk in the classroom mirrors everyone who is part of that community. That is what makes talk so important.
Purposeful talk measures the level of intellectual rigor. It conveys the level of trust and relationships within the community. The words that fill a classroom reflect the learners themselves. Think of it this way, talk paints a picture of students’ culture, beliefs, passions, and even their fears. We are showing students how to communicate in the world, we are teaching them that their words are valuable, that they are important, and every child deserves to know that they have a voice that is worthy of being heard. Thank you, Maria Nichols. Thank you for writing your beautiful book, Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Building Purposeful Talk.
Wow! The Twittersphere was on fire on 10/22/2020 when the #G2Great chat discussed Alfie Kohn’s article from the Boston Globe, “Is Learning ‘Lost’ When Kids Are Out of School?” You can check out the article here and the Wakelet for the chat here.
I trust that you will want to check out the article as Alfie Kohn succinctly answers his own question. But that also causes a few more questions for readers which is why the discussion was scheduled with the #G2Great audience. What’s important? What matters?
Here are a few tweets illustrating that point.
Where do we begin? Many government officials and capitalists would have us begin with assessments but if you espouse “student-centered” education then you already know that we must begin at the very beginning. Are there really gaps? How would those be assessed? And how would we really assess learning? And that circles back to student-centered learning. We begin with student assets as identified in the tweets below.
In the Boston Globe article, Alfie Kohn pulls no punches with his beliefs about standardized tests. Do they REALLY measure learning? Well, that then requires us to think about learning. Is learning merely the regurgitation of factoids, examples, and curriculum that could be answered by a Google search? Or is “learning” something else? What do educators believe? How would students respond?
Here are some thoughts on “What is learning?” from the #G2Great community.
So if we are not going to use standardized assessments to measure “Learning”, what can the education community STOP doing now? How can we help “Learning” be the sustained focus and not just the “flavor” for a chat response or a newsletter? How can we make LEARNING the focus of all our future conversations?
In order for instruction to provide opportunities for learning as well as choice, and adding in “student-centered”, what will educators need to be working on expanding? What about: Student agency? Empowerment? Choice?
These four tweets will jump start your thinking about additional actions for your school community.
Is learning lost? There may be some summer slide, but as previously mentioned, students have shared powerful learning from their at-home work that has longer lasting life-time implications for their communities. Where will change come from? What will it look like? It will begin with a belief in the need for change. We can no longer afford to prepare our children for the 20th century. Change has been needed for decades and is evident that we are now in the THIRD decade of the 21st century. The pandemic just made the need for change more visible when schools were shuttered across the U.S. (and Canada) last March.
Where will YOU begin? Who else needs to read and discuss this article with you? When? The time for action is NOW! The students are depending on YOU!
Having devoted my life to a joyful dive into all things literacy, I was struck by the lovely way that Kassia and Christy created a complementary merger where literacy and math converge into glorious harmony on the talk playing field. Engaging student discourse has always been central to my work, but I had never considered the talk process beyond my own literacy lens. I quickly saw the many commonalities between talk that takes place in literacy and talk that takes place in math. By acknowledging commonalities across varied contexts, I see the potential for transfer of learning as we also contemplate our role in lifting student voices in varied talk opportunities while avoiding pitfalls that may silence those same voices.
This thought is beautifully verbalized by Kassia and Christy in a quote from their book that we shared during our #G2Great chat:
With the exception of those who wrongly believe that school is defined by a teacher talking and students listening, I am confident that educators share a deep desire to empower student voices. But empowerment doesn’t happen by chance. Rather, we must assume responsibility for daily decision-making that allows us to approach talk in a way that keeps students at the center of talk experiences. This assumes that we model purposeful talk but are also willing to step out of their way as we begin to relinquish control of the talk process. These choices impact whether students find themselves on a talk path where they feel empowered or one where disempowerment is a dark cloud that silences them.
In their amazing session for The Educator Collaborative Gathering 9/19/20, Hands Down, Speak Out: Making Space for Student-Led Conversations in the Primary Classroom, K-2 Kassia and Christy illustrated this point through their shared goal, “We want to create a classroom community so that every child who wants to talk will feel comfortable doing so.” To our benefit, Kassia and Christy expertly show us how to do that across their book with student examples, micro lessons, teacher tips, resources and rich advice peppered generously across a vast sea of wisdom.
Before I turn my focus to our #G2great chat, I’d like share insight into Hands Down, Speak Out from our authors. We were so enamored by this talk merger across the curriculum that we were inspired to do what we have never done in nearly six years as a weekly twitter chat. We combined two books over two weeks with our first “Book Pairing” that includes Maria Nichols on 10/15/20 for her wonderful book, Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk (Heinemann, 2019).
As we discussed the idea of Book Pairing around the topic of TALK, Kassia, Christy and Maria had a wonderful idea to create video conversations about their combined books. This week, I’d like to share two of those captioned videos with the final two videos shared in Maria’s post next week. In these videos, Kassia, Christy and Maria reflect on:
Since this blog post is an after-chat reflection for Kassia and Christy twitter wisdom, I turned back to the chat for inspiration. First, I gathered several of their tweets looking for insights to extend their book. There were so many amazing points that it was challenging to limit the spotlight tweets, so I opted to share a slightly condensed list with Fifteen Talk Tips from Kassia and Christy with my brief reflections. Their combined tips include both talk moves and cautions that will allow us to make those moves.
Talk Tip #1: What we believe becomes our reality (and theirs)
Kassia gives us the ideal starting point since the beliefs we carry into our learning spaces impact all we do. Well-meaning teachers may maintain control of classroom talk out of concern for student success – a belief that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we allow shaky beliefs to cloud our view, we see our children from a deficit lens. Believing deeply in their talk potential with needed supports initially builds a culture that nurtures talk. We must question how students can see what is possible if we don’t.
Talk Tip #2 Avoiding descriptors that limit talk
Schools have long held on to numerical values that often become labels used to define children. Just as this is true from a testing perspective, it is also true when we apply labels in the form of descriptors designed to reflect who we assume them to be. Christy’s reminder to use quiet as a source of curiosity that leads to observations is important as this can gently nudge us to new understandings of what quiet means from a broader perspective.
Talk Tip #3: Re-envisioning our role in the talk process
It’s not an accident that Christy’s tweet is followed by Kassia’s repetition of the word “curious.” When we assume that is is our job to be the knower of all things, then children will look to us for assistance or confirmation. In the process, we miss the wisdom that may remain underground. This move to “curious inquirer” invites opportunities that are likely to make the invisible visible, and thus teach us much about student thinking.
Talk Tip #4: Learning to break old habits that derail
I’ve never heard the term “revoicing” but I recognize it as something all too common based on Christy’s description. How often to we take students’ words and repeat or restate them, often changing the underlying message in the process. To help students engage in real world talk we must be willing to demonstrate real world listening. That require us to stop coming to the rescue and acknowledge what they say and how they say it.
Talk Tip #5: Supporting a talk path leading to ownership
Kassia eloquently worded how this path to ownership begins by setting the stage for talk while leaving room for students to assume ownership of how they express their ideas. Using a reflective talk mirror to listen to students allows for observations as students explore talk options for getting their ideas across. Students are then given time and space to model this process for each other while engaged in talk as we get out of their way.
Talk Tip #6: Loosening the reins to invite authentic talk
As I read Christy’s words, I thought of the many times I have experienced this talk view. When we create an obligatory TALK BOX, we limit expression and promote talk that is far removed from real-world discourse. We can’t invite students to express their ideas and then refute how they get those ideas across in meaningful ways. This is a great disservice that sends mixed messages about the purpose of turn and talk as a task vs exploring ideas.
Talk Tip #7: Re-defining talk with a virtual learning space
Kassia illustrates the digital instruction that is a reality for many teachers during this pandemic. In spite of the challenges that have come with our move to a virtual space, it also affords us an opportunity to redefine talk within this new teaching and learning experience. This seems like a worthy discussion for schools to have as they explore viable options and consider powerful ways to embrace, nurture, support and extend those options.
Talk Tip #8: Using small groups as a precursor for talk
Christy continues Kassia’s virtual teaching focus by reminding us that carefully chosen talk tools can elevate small group learning. More than ever before, we have a variety of tools that can maximize these collaborative talk opportunities. This can create space for students to think about their own thinking before sharing their ideas in whole class digital experiences. This rehearsal time offers a scaffold that is sure to enhance any next steps.
Talk Tip #9: Exploring talk from multiple perspectives
Kassia extends Christy’s small group theme by showing us that a wide range of talk experiences in varied groupings will support different “kind of talkers” that can thrive in different kind of groupings. This is a wonderful way to rethink instructional design in any setting so that we can support these conversations across different groups with different purposes.
Talk Tip #10: Turn and Talk as a thinking playground
Christy beautifully illustrates how she shifted her perspective from turn and talk used to prove thinking to others vs. turn and talk that offers an opportunity to explore thinking in small collaborative partnerships. Her view of turn and talk as opportunities to construct ideas is so important and it frees the teacher to become a fly on the wall observer listening to those conversations in action that can take root and grow.
Talk Tip #11: Inviting real world talk into our schools
I’ve always found it fascinating to listen to how young people communicate beyond the school setting. Listening to these authentic exchanges can teach us so much about students and how they use talk within their every day surroundings. Kassia reminds us to use what students do naturally in their own lives. Listening to conversations that aren’t bound by contradictory rules and directives can help us to elevate school talk by celebrating the home-school connection.
Talk Tip #12: Dismantling the existing social power systems
Christy asks us to acknowledge the imbalance of power that can exist in the talk students engage in within our schools. She helps us to consider how we might shift that imbalance using tools that will support collective ways we might “critique, dismantle, and redesign those systems”. I love her reminder to stand beside students and support them within this rebalancing process.
Talk Tip #13: Creating an equitable talk landscape
Kassia extends Christy’s point as we begin to notice the inevitable ‘social hierarchies and inequitable power distributions’. This requires our honesty but it also demand that we have a sense of awareness about both individual students and the collective culture of classroom structures that we may be inadvertently perpetuating. ‘More just’ classrooms is a collaborative effort fueled by talk that can either invalidate or support new understandings.
Talk Tip #14: Knowing where digging deeper counts
Christy’s tweet is a critical point any time but especially during a pandemic. If we want to create classroom communities where talk makes room for students to explore topics at greater depth, we must avoid viewing the day as a never-ending instructional obligatory distraction. Highlighting “juicy” bits across the curriculum that matter most will create experiences with huge payoff that matters in the lives of students.
Talk Tip #15: Looking for what is already there
I purposely saved this tweet from Kassia for last since it allowed our tips to move full circle. We start by believing that every student has great potential for leading meaningful discussions and then take ample time to admire the brilliance that beckons us to listen carefully. This also extends Christy’s last tweet to honor the precious limited time we have available so that we can open a door to opportunities where deeper talk experiences await us.
My Final Thoughts
These fifteen talk tips and more are written in great detail in Hands Down, Speak Out so I hope this entices you to take a closer look. You can start by checking out these two wonderful resources including their Stenhouse podcast, Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math and website/blog.
As I come to the end of this post, I return to The Educator Collaborative Gathering on 9/19/20 with a guiding question from Kassia and Christy we should all be asking if we truly desire to move toward more powerful talk:
“What are students ALREADY doing in their talk and where can we start to help them grow?”
This essential starting point is wonderful advice. Too often school start from the outside-in by making decisions based on curricular obligations. What if we followed this wise advice and approached talk from the inside-out as we begin with students and what they bring to the talk experience now? In this way, we could use the curriculum to enrich what they already bring to the learning table rather than inviting them to a table that has already been set according to a school induced agenda. I think that this could dramatically alter our efforts to create a “hands down, speak out’ talk culture.
In closing, we’d like to thank Kassia and Christy for sharing their knowledge and passion for listening and talking across literacy and math. I know that many of us will return to this chat and their book again and again.
Please join the second half of our pairing next week when Maria Nichols is our #G2Great guest. To whet your talk appetite for week two, here are four tweets Maria shared during our chat this week for a tantalizing preview. It’s our hope that you will bring what you learned from Hands Down, Speak Out and notice the many intersections that lead to Building Bigger Ideas.
An archive of this weeks chat with Dr. Anindya Kundu can be found here.
This past week we had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Anindya Kundu about his book The Power of Student Agency. As we look at the hurdles our students face, we very often forget how resilient our students are and see them through a deficit lens.
What motivated you to write this book?
“I was motivated to write TPSA after years of seeing how strapped schools, students, and districts can be when it comes to resources. At the same time, there are so many students overcoming incredible challenges in their lives (homelessness, incarceration, broken families, etc) and schools that still create cultures of success despite limitations, that I felt these stories needed to be shared. This book compiles a couple years of my fieldwork research meeting exceptional people and sharing their stories to make the case that achievement is possible for all students, if we can get behind them and support them holistically.”
The Power of Potential
A few years ago I was touring a potato farm, bear with me I am going somewhere with this, as we walking in one of the building I noticed a drain hole in the floor. I walked towards the drain and found this.
Through the concrete, with so little nutrients and the required materials to grow, this little plant was growing. Instead of focusing though on the adversity faced, I think we look at the plant and its potential despite the conditions faced. When we look at our students who face hurdles we (teachers generally) tend to look at the deficits as a starting point instead of the potential. As Dr. Kundu asks in the question, “What happens when we stop looking at the Rose in Concrete and begin looking at our schools as gardens” we see things like this.
I feel like the term “grit” has always been misused and in our current Covid reality of teaching it continues to be. I love the different reflections that came out of this simple question because they look beyond just saying things are not working and offer up hope. As Heather mentioned, schools are in need of some heavy weeding; by focusing on the schools that need to look at their practices, we are taking some of the weight off our students. By not falling back on the analogy of the rose through the concrete or the potato plant and instead looking at the environment we are providing and the potential of our students to succeed, we move away from this “grit” concept and towards a space were students see that where they are planted is fluid and can be adapted to fit their needs.
What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
“The whole book is structured around highlighting the social side to grit and resilience. All students have these internal reservoirs of necessary character traits for academic and professional success; however, structural limitations are real and must be acknowledged and addressed because otherwise, we place the onus of achievement on the student alone and absolve ourselves. Instead, when we constantly think about a student in terms of their agency, or potential, we reintroduce that teaching and learning are foremost social practices that require collective responsibility.”
Shifting the System Requires Change
When Covid-19 first hit there was this call to change the system. To create systems that provided our students with what they needed to succeed in this new normal. The thing was, however, as some made moves to make those changes it was a lot easier to talk about it than do it. Especially when the practices and thinking you have held so near and dear are the ones that are limiting our students. So how do we begin? We let go of power, we question the systems that are in place that have continued to limit the potential of some students and we get uncomfortable. Growing pains are a real thing. I started a new weight lifting plan a few weeks back. On day three EVERYTHING hurt. I started to look at how easy it would be to go back to me tried and true (and easy at this point) routine. Maybe just add a little weight. But I also understood that the hurt was my muscles repairing and growing stronger. If as teachers we are honest in our desire to create a system where all of our students are able to meet their potential we have to be willing to push through the discomfort of change that is required. No more calling for system changes but being unwilling to change our practice.
Just this morning I was talking with a colleague about the needs of a student. We discussed this idea that so often we ask students, especially students with learning needs, that they change to fit our needs and we don’t change to fit theirs. So where do we begin? Always with our students.
What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
“I hope that teachers and educators can challenge themselves to see the giftedness in all students, even the ones who can be more difficult. They need our help more than others! If we can learn how to take a child’s existing interests, competencies, and talents and use those as motivational tools, we can create vibrant learning environments where all students thrive. This requires a thorough understanding of who our students are as people. It may sound complicated, but I hope the narratives I share (of how homes and families, educators and schools, and students themselves) can personify actionable, simple, and FREE strategies to inspire student agency.”
Our Students Don’t Need Saving
The hero or saviour narrative that is often applied to teachers of students who learn differently or have obstacles in their lives that potentially disrupt learning needs to be one of those things we put aside. Our students don’t need saving, they need us to be better. These last few months I have often raised the question on social media if our practices are doing more harm than good, especially in this time of Covid-19 where inequity has been under the spotlight. Sadly, it is met by hostility. If we are really interested in shifting and changing practices we have to be willing to change. Our students’ success is not dependnnt on us, because kids will succeed despite us. But we can do more to make room for them to shine. We must purposefully question our practice and explore the gaps we have that limit our students and we can make the moves to be better and help create those opportunities for them to realize their potential.
I am no saviour, hero or gardener. I am a teacher. My students are not statistics. They are amazingly talented human beings who, when provided the space to learn in ways that suit them and display that learning in ways they can shine, they will.
If you are looking for more from Dr. Kundu you can check out these links: