On Student Talk and What to Look For

I am struck by the noise that surrounds us.  As I walk through my school, Oregon Middle, the voices of kids float through the open doors.  Sure, the teachers can be heard as well, but over and over, again and again, there the kids are.  Asking questions, discussing, getting passionate.  We are carried forward by the voices of the very kids we serve.  It makes me even prouder to be a teacher here.

And yet.  I think back to the days where I thought silence meant learning.

Where I thought deep engagement was almost always quiet.  Punctuated by brief answers facilitated by me to check for understanding.

Where I thought that if only I could get them to listen, then they would learn.

If only they would stop talking then they would really understand.

If only one child answered then surely that was engagement.

If only they turned and talked when I asked them that meant we were doing student talk right.

And while we still savor the quiet hush that surrounds us when we reach the zone with our books or with our thinking or with our writing, we also relish the noise that comes from student engagement.

But not just any type of noise, the productive kind.  The one that goes deeper.  The one that isn’t just because the kids are being compliant but because they actually care.  That is when student engagement is done right.  So what can we look for when we evaluate the types of noise our kids are making?

Who is making the noise? 

Is it you or is it them?  While there is much to be said for teacher-led discussion, at some point we have to turn it over so the kids can do the probing, the analyzing, and the digging deeper.  What if we didn’t give them all of the questions, but instead gave them the time to discuss?  What if we modeled it but then truly let them take the reigns, not just once in a while but almost always?  What if students came up with the discussion questions as well as moderated the flow?

How much noise is it?  

Is the noise contained to brief periods of time in your class or is it throughout?  Are students engaged outside of the questions we ask?  Are the teaching points inspiring them to care more?  To ask more?  To push their thinking?  Or is just having them discuss one thing and then lapsing into silence as they wait for the next direction?

Who controls the noise?

While I see many teachers embrace the “turn and talk,” I wonder how often that’s it for student talk.  I am guilty of this thinking;  as long as they turn and talk then surely there is student engagement.  Yet I have found that in my eagerness to get to the next thing, I have often cut off the kids from going deeper into their conversations.  That my desire to ask the next question has stopped their further inquiry.  That my casual discomfort with student silence means they are not getting time to just think.  I am working on seeing where it goes and following along when we can.

What emotions lie behind the noise?

I loved the discussion unfolding in our classroom today as students discussed “Who should get the baby?” after listening to an NPR podcast.  They were so upset, not with each other, but with the facts of the case, how it wasn’t black and white, and also how others were not agreeing with them.  To see this passion for a podcast as we discuss uncovering facts to change our perspective is exactly what I hope for; that they care about it.  That they speak up because they cannot imagine staying quiet.  That it matters enough for them to actually bother with adding their voice.

And for me that’s it; when I think of true student engagement through student talk, I look for the emotions.  How students speak.  Why they speak.  What they say, but also how they say it.  Within this exchange, we can gauge their interest.  We can see whether they are simply going through the motions or whether our class, our learning exploration, actually matters to them.  And so this is where we start, where I start every time I evaluate our student talk; with the emotional investment or lack thereof.  It turns out that the truth can really be found in how they speak their words.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

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