Classroom discusion: wait time, affirmations and listening

As my school year is now officially over, I have shifted into reflection mode so that I can process the previous ten months.  One area of my teaching that has improved tremendously since my novice days as an educator is my ability to host a productive classroom discussion.  Classroom discussion is critical, particularly in English Language Arts. Students need to discuss to process complex texts and the ideas and themes within them.  Rich discussion can enhance a student’s ability to comprehend on a higher level. Below are three strategies that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my classes the past year that I feel really strengthened the quality of our classroom discourse:

The importance of wait time

A teacher’s role in classroom discussion should be that of facilitator.  However, sometimes teachers can unintentionally be the biggest inhibitors to a meaningful classroom discussion because they are not intentionally structuring wait time into their discourse.  In education, wait time is the amount of time a teacher waits for a student response after asking a question.  Research has shown that on average teachers provide students with 1 second or less of wait time.  Former educator Mary Budd Rowe concluded that allowing 3 seconds of wait time significantly increased the quality of student responses as well as enhancing the overall value of classroom discourse.

Why don’t teachers just keep a 3-mississippi count going in their head after they posit a question?  It seems so simple. However, allowing for wait times is DIFFICULT!  Two to three seconds can feel like an eternity when you are standing in front of a class trying to foster a discussion.  Teachers can hear the momentum of their lesson coming to a screeching halt during those silent seconds.  For new teachers, this silence can seem even more pronounced and bring on strong feelings of inadequacy, or at least that was the case for me when I first started out in the profession.  An instructional coach at my school told me that one of the new 8th grade teachers was literally finishing her students sentences; I felt for her because I knew not only how nervous she must have been, but also how desperately she wanted to reach the kids.

After six years, I can say that I feel much more comfortable with the seconds of silence that follow my questions.  Experience has taught me that it doesn’t mean that my students aren’t engaged; it means they are thinking, and eventually, someone will offer a thoughtful response that MIGHT even include a few details from something we have just read.

Resisting that urge to affirm

Sometime last year, I stopped offering affirmations to student responses.  Prior to that, if a kid raised his or hand and made an observation, I’d usually give them an “Exactly!” or “Great response!”.  However, I began to noticed that every time I affirmed a student response in that manner, one or two other hands would slowly make their way down.  My affirmation caused these students to choose to not participate, most likely because they thought that the other student had given the “correct” answer.  With all of the book discussions that we do in my ELA classes, the last thing I want to do is discourage participation because exposing my students to diverse viewpoints concerning the same topic is an essential component of my job.

I reflected on this observation, and I changed.  Now, when a student gives a response during a class discussion, I usually offer either an “okay” or “uh huh”, both in my most neutral tone possible.  This leaves the door open for more replies, and I’ve definitely noticed an uptick in participation since I started employing this strategy.  When I don’t positively affirm a response, other students feel as though their ideas are still valid.  Our role as teachers is to ENCOURAGE classroom discussion, not dominate it.

Helping students become better listeners

Last summer, I attended an International Baccalaureate conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and the instructor used a host of pedagogical strategies to introduce the various concepts to us throughout the three-day event.  I stole one of them called “One-minute partner talk” that I began using in my classes this year.  Basically, you pair up two students and they each get a maximum of one-minute to discuss whatever topic you are having your students talk about.  They can use the full minute, or they can talk for just 10 seconds (that was the minimum I set with my students).  The person who is not talking CANNOT respond to anything their partner says during the minute; the only thing that he or she can do is LISTEN.  I absolutely LOVE this strategy.  First off, it gets the kids talking, which is something that middle school students clamor for all the time.  Second, it teaches them to listen to one another without jumping in and interrupting.  I joke with my kids that I have plenty of adult friends that need to play this game to practice their listening skills.

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The last week of school

I have five more days left with my students.  Five more days.  Teachers, myself included, are definitely guilty of beginning a daily countdown when the standardized testing ends and the finish to the year is clearly in sight.  Personally, I consider 20 days to be my “clearly in sight”.

When the final bell rings in the afternoon on Friday, I will have completed my 6th year as a teacher, which ties my record for the longest I’ve done a job since college.  As the end of the year nears, I always find myself feeling like it all went by so fast.  Not necessarily too fast, just fast.  It feels like only yesterday that I was memorizing names and trying to attach them to faces.  In early August, all of these 7th grade people in my room were essentially strangers.  Now, I have relationships with most of them.  I know what genre of books they like.  We have inside jokes.  I know which ones are going to rise to the challenge of a complex writing task and which ones are going to need some nudging and prodding to get started.  I know who works best in small groups and who does better on their own. I know who’s going to want to read their journal entries out loud in front of the class.  I know who I’m going to have to remind to have a seat when I enter the classroom.  Bottom line: I know these kids.  Teaching is all about relationships, and at this point in the year, those relationships are firmly in place.  We will get a short break from one another this summer, and then I will see them again in the cafeteria and at the buses after school when my current students come back as 8th graders.  But it won’t be the same.  They won’t be MY students anymore.  We will still have the relationships, but not the daily interactions that come so naturally between a teacher and his or her students.

At this time of the year, I also think often about the students that I still don’t know that well.  For whatever reason, there are always a handful of kids that leave my class in May that I do not feel like I know beyond a surface level.  Our interactions have been minimal.  These students have come to my class each day this year, quietly completing the tasks and assignments that I’ve created.  Maybe they are shy.  Maybe these students don’t need me like some of the others because they have enough support at home.  Maybe they don’t know how to ask for help or feedback.  No matter the reason, the fact remains that I don’t have much of a relationship with these kids other than I hand them work, they do it and then they hand it back to me.  I feel guilty about this.  Why can’t I cultivate the same connection with this small group of students that I have with all my others?  Do they feel the same way, or is this how they want it to be with all their teachers?  As the year comes to a close, I hope that THESE students know that I care about them as people.

Technically, the year doesn’t officially end for my colleagues and I until the week after this one.  We have three days of post planning to finalize grades and pack up our rooms, but it’s not the same as when the kids are there.  The halls are too quiet.  The rooms empty.  There aren’t any books or projects on the horizon.  I have SO MANY micro-conversations on a daily basis with scores of students as well as coworkers, so when all of that interaction comes to a sudden halt it is palpable.  Days go by slower.  I find myself noticing my newfound solitude.  These are both good things.  Summer offers the flexibility to catch up on sleep, read more and travel.  I spend more time with my significant other (she is also a teacher).

But when July begins to wind down, I’m ready for school.  I’m eager to meet my new crop of students so I can learn as much as I can about them so that they can learn as much as they can from me.

 

 

 

The power of a positive phone call

This week my students wrote an essay in which they argued that they should be allowed to chew gum in school.  They had to pull evidence from a pair of articles that I provided from CNN and The Guardian.  Argument writing has been our focus this quarter, and with the quarter winding down, I wanted to see how well they could craft an argument on their own.

One student in particular did a phenomenal job of creating a well-organized essay, which is such an accomplishment for her because she entered my 7th grade class reading at a 3rd grade level. For her to be able to complete this task is nothing short of huge. I had to pass this information along to her mother.  Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: I wanted to let you know how proud I am of Nakia for her work on her argumentative essay this week.  She worked really hard, and she put together a great piece of writing that used several pieces of strong supporting evidence that supported her claim.

Parent: Uh-huh.

Me: I’m just so proud of how much growth she has shown this year as both a reader and writer.

Parent: So…this is a good call?

Me: Yes!  Definitely a good call.

Parent: Oh, that’s so nice to hear! I thought maybe she hadn’t gotten something done in class.

Me: No, no, no. She’s doing fine.

Parent: That’s really nice to hear.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.  I try my best to call home whenever students reach milestones in my class, whether they finish a book, write an amazing essay or just improve upon their behavior.  For the most part, these calls are met with uncertainty because the parents at my school generally assume that if they are getting a call from the school, their child has done something wrong.

Now, I make my fair share of parent phone calls home when my students aren’t meeting my expectations, either academically or behaviorally. I’m sure, like most teachers, I make way more phone calls home of this variety.  The student that disrupts the learning environment in my room is going to get a call home that day; the other twenty-something kids who come to class and attempt to do everything I ask of them will not.  Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to call all of our student’s parents regularly to discuss positives or negatives.  It just isn’t happening. But we must make time to have those positive discussions with parents when their children are succeeding at school.  Here’s why:

Positive phone calls build currency with students

Teaching is all about relationships. Teachers that have strong relationships with their students are going to have classes where those students are engaged and ready to take the academic risks that are necessary for true learning to occur.  Making a good call home for a student when it is warranted is an important step in cultivating that teacher-student relationship.  It rewards the student for his or her accomplishment, and it shows the student that you value that accomplishment so much that you wanted to share the good news with someone at home.  Students will work hard for that sort of praise.  Plus, a teacher that makes a positive phone call home for a student now has currency that he or she can use when they might have to make a phone call home to discuss a transgression.  Students, like their parents, naturally presume that a call home means that they’ve done something wrong.  When a student knows that his or her teacher calls home to discuss both the good and the bad, that student will see that their teacher is invested in them.

Positive phone calls improve parent-teacher relationships

Being a parent of a student who struggles at school has to be difficult.  Getting phone calls to discuss poor grades or behavioral shortcomings cannot be easy.  As teachers, we all have those students that are regularly not meeting the expectations of our classroom, and if you are like me, you spend a decent amount of time on the phone with those parents. I believe it’s critical to make parents aware of what their child is doing in my class when that child is not performing well.  If I were the parent of that child, I’d want to know.  However, having these discussions is not a simple process because emotions are involved.  Whenever I call home to let a parent know that his or her child had a slip-up behaviorally or academically, I am cognizant of the fact that I am speaking to someone who loves this student for better or worse.

However, when I make a genuine positive phone call home for those same struggling students, it begins to change the narrative of my relationship with that parent. They see that I am not just another teacher that focuses on all of the negative attributes of their child. Those positive phone calls show those parents that I celebrate the positive contributions that their child is making to the class as well, and that communication can be transformative.  The parent sees that I am observing their child fairly.  They know that I care about their child’s well-being.  It’s a big step in fostering a relationship with that parent that says to their child that the parent and I are on the same team.

I hate the first day of school

One week of school is in the books.  Well, technically not a full week of classes since we started on Wednesday, but the amount of tired I am parallels the level of fatigue that normally sets in from a typical five-day week.

Let me just say that I do not like the first day of school.   I tossed and turned all Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  If I could ballpark the total amount of sleep I got that night, I’d say it was somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours.  This is my 6th year of teaching, yet having a restful evening the night before the opening day of school continues to elude me.  The first day of school contains far too many unknowns, which causes my angst-meter to skyrocket, making sleep impossible.  Bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, I arrived at my school roughly 40 minutes before the first bell.

In 7th grade, we have the kids for an hour and a half of what is called “extended homeroom”.  During that time, I have to greet students at the door, get them seated, introduce myself, assign them lockers, help them open the lockers, review the code of conduct, discuss rules and expectations for the 7th grade hallway, tell them the schedule, show them where they will eat lunch, and explain to them what we will do in case of a fire, tornado or lockdown procedure.  It’s an incredible amount of information to cram into 90 minutes, not too mention that I’m really stretching the limits of 7th grade attention spans by going over so much material in lecture format.  Most of my extended homeroom was spent showing students how to open their lockers, even though they had them on the 6th grade hallway.  After two or three failed attempts by a student, I would swoop in and work my magic.  When the locker opened, each kid would inevitably ask, “How did you do that?”, to which I simply replied, “I’m fly like that”.

But the two things I hate most about the first day is going over rules and expectations, and the fact that I do not know any of these 80-something faces looking at me.  Don’t get me wrong – I understand the value of reviewing the expectations that I have for the class along with the consequences that I will administer if those expectations are not met.  However, running through that same song and dance four times in a day becomes quite tedious.  I much rather prefer a normal class day where I talk WAY less and serve more as a facilitator to the students’ learning.

As I mentioned, the awkwardness of those first classes is unnerving; the kids don’t know me, and I don’t know them.  Neither of us is completely sure how the other is going to act or react.  The best part of teaching is the relationships that are built with students, but at this point those relationships have yet to form, and we are really just twenty-something strangers together in a room.

With all that being said, we made it.  Even though we are just three days into the year, I feel as though I know my students SO MUCH BETTER than I did a week ago.  Some of their personalities have begun to emerge through our discussions and interactions.  I can already tell that I have a lot of eager learners as well a handful of students who are going to be more difficult to reach.  Either way, I’m excited to begin working with all of them.

The highlight of the week for me came on the second day of homeroom when I read aloud to my kids for ten minutes from Sharon Flake’s Bang!.  For anyone unfamiliar with the book, it’s a pretty easy read that starts off with a bang (pun intended) as we learn immediately via a flashback how the narrator’s brother was shot and killed.  My students did an excellent job of listening and responding to the questions that I posed to them as I read.  When I finished, we talked about how much I valued the importance of giving them time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I told them that they were going to get opportunities to get lost in a variety of different genres over the next year.  We discussed the ways in which readers preview potential books, and how they set about choosing one to read.

Then the kids got out of their seats and perused my classroom library, which I am quite proud of, and chose a text that appealed to them.  Finally, my homeroom read independently for 6 minutes (we were pressed for time).  More than half of my students asked for bookmarks that they could personalize so that they could continue reading their book the next time we met.  On Friday, this same group read for nearly 10 minutes during the end of homeroom, and several more left bookmarks in their novels.  I couldn’t have been more pleased with how well this group dove right into the independent reading initiative in just two quick days.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the upcoming school year is high.