Think about the experience of sitting at dinner with friends and family on Thanksgiving. If your dining experience is like mine, conversations are spirited. Charged, in fact! Raised voices, laughter, many people talking at once, and probably a few sidebar conversations surround you. All of this occurs simultaneously. Certainly, this image in its entirety isn’t exactly what we envision happening with our students during book discussions. But, there are aspects of this Thanksgiving dinner analogy that we can use in our classrooms to help students engage in lively, meaningful, and memorable discussions.
Accountable Talk is an approach to whole and small group classroom discussions where students, not teachers, assume responsibility for their talk time. Breaking away from the traditional structure in school where students raise their hands and wait to be called on in order to participate in conversations, talk time is self- initiated, fluid, and dynamic–similar to the Thanksgiving dinner experience. This instructional strategy shifts the student-teacher power dynamic as students take agency and ownership of their conversations. What students discuss and how the conversation evolves is completely up to them. These discussions can be centered on a shared reading experience such as an article, picture book, or novel. Students learn to build upon the responses of their peers, ask each other questions, elaborate to bring clarity to an issue, and generate new ideas sparked by the multiple perspectives of their classmates and the ways this influences thinking.
Of course, there are specific instructional strategies we’ll need to teach. I like to think of it as being the “conversation coach” who prepares students, prior to the discussion, with the tools they’ll need for success. Here’s where classroom rubrics and discussion guidelines come in! In order to cultivate the “Thanksgiving dinner energy” during discussions without the chaos, setting simple guidelines that can be extended as students become more proficient at this is helpful.
For example, novice discussants might begin with two or three expectations such as:
- We spoke without raising our hands.
- We looked at the speaker and watched the conversation.
Charts or handouts that feature sentence starters like, “I agree/disagree because…” and “Why do you think that?” are helpful, particularly for students who have quieter voices in the classroom and need extra support to participate. Students who have louder voices will needed coaching to learn how to pull back in order to create spaces for others to get in the conversation. A quick tip such as, “Wait until at least 5 peers have spoken before speaking again,” can help students avoid dominating behaviors.
In addition to these expectations, advanced conversationalists might have two or three more such as:
- We responded to each other’s ideas, rather than simply laying out our own.
- We used text-evidence to support ideas.
The criteria for discussions can evolve across the year as students get better and better at group conversations.
Feeling like your students need more direction? Identify a small group of students who seem to have the hang of this. Ask them to model a discussion for the class. Create an outer circle with the rest of the class that surrounds the focus group. Using clipboards and paper, students in the outer circle can jot down their observations of what the focus group is doing that can be helpful in their own small group discussions. Also, if you can videotape a group of students who become proficient at Accountable Talk you’ll have a model that can be used each year.
Evaluating the talk time is an important step that helps students mark their successes as well as set goals for future discussions. Students can decide upon a simple rubric that they can use to assess their work each time they have small group discussions.
When you’re launching Accountable Talk in your classroom, it may feel look and feel like you’re back at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But with continued practice and reflection, students blossom into focused, powerful discussants.