Sometimes inspiration for my teaching life comes from seemingly disparate experiences in my personal life. I spent a recent Saturday afternoon surrounded by a gaggle of giddy women who had gathered to celebrate our mutual friend's impending motherhood. This was an unusual event for me: I'm in the phase of life now where most of my friends and I are occupied with shuttling our kids to and from soccer fields and piano lessons, or worrying over how our children will make the transition from kindergarten to first grade. It had been a while since I'd been to a baby shower. Frankly, I'd forgotten how much I hate them — especially the shower games. Who knew that I was about to strike gold?
As my friend unwrapped each of her gifts, her sister-in-law Carrie dutifully recorded each offering down on a sheet of paper so that thank-you notes could be sent. She also — unbeknownst to anyone else — recorded what the guest of honor said as she opened each package. At the end of the gift unwrapping, up to our ankles in crinkled wrapping paper and ribbons, Carrie announced that we would be playing a shower game. Great. She tore the sheet of scribbled down quotes into strips and passed them around the circle, instructing each of us to read aloud one of the exclamations made by the guest of honor, telling us that these would be predictors of what our friend would say when she laid eyes on her bundle of joy for the first time. We were rolling in laughter as we read "It's so fuzzy!" and "How cute, but I'm not sure [my husband] will like it."
Revealing Quotes in Classrooms
In my work with novice teachers and as a literacy coach, I am forever looking for fresh ways to capture and record what I see. I was inspired by the shower game to try a similar notetaking experiment in Katie Doherty's 6th grade language arts classroom this week. I decided to jot down spontaneous snippets of student conversations, gather them together in one document, and see what would emerge. Here's what I heard:
"It's very important to know what you're reading. So it's important to know the shawn-ruh [genre]."
"So, there is personification in fables, right? That's a characteristic of this genre."
"My favorite author is . . . I forget his name, but it's Harley's favorite author too."
"In other classes I make a lot of jokes — [I'm] the person who talks a lot." In [Ms. Doherty's] class, I'm a listener."
"This book is awesome! Look at the back — I like the back. It tells you what it's gonna be about."
"It's in alphabetical order, so it's gonna be towards the front."
"Sorry, I just can't today. I have so much to work on with my writing."
"Fifteen minutes? Why only 15?"
"Jarron and I are starting a book club at my house after school. We're gonna read (points to Sabotaged by Margaret Peterson Haddix). I haven't read the first two, but he has and he said he would catch me up."
"My mother says I have a good heart."
"I got my book taken away last time in Mrs. ____'s class. That would never happen in here."
"Yes! This is my favorite part of the day!"
During our brief conference together after class, I read the quotes aloud to Katie. As I worked my way down the page, filling the room with the words spoken by her students just moments before, Katie and I exchanged warm smiles and head nods. We provided each other the context for the quotes — I by filling her in on who said what, she by giving me the back story on the student who said it. Together, we wove a tapestry of new understanding about her classroom. Each quote brought us a new insight into her community of learners; in turn making us feel nostalgic, pensive, and even a little misty-eyed, punctuated by occasional staccato outburst of laughter. This simple exercise brought a new depth and poignancy to our conversation and to our working relationship too: it reinforced the feeling that Katie and I are on the same team. Can you think of a data capturing tool in your current repertoire that does that?
What emerged from the quotes was a snapshot of the community in her classroom. We were amazed by the wealth of information we got about who her students are as readers and who they are as people. Here are just a few of the insights we gained from these twelve snippets of conversation:
- Students see themselves as readers.
- Students know their friend's reading habits.
- Students have a method for choosing books.
- Students know what personification and genre are.
- Students help each other out — they explore together — they share what they learn.
- Students are comfortable and confident in expressing and sharing ideas in the class.
- Students are aware of their role in the classroom community.
Capturing classroom conversation is my new favorite feedback mechanism for the novice teachers that I work with too. The presence of another teacher in your classroom can be very intimidating, especially the presence of a teacher who is there to give feedback on what kind of job you are doing. Capturing student conversations is a friendly way to open a dialogue with teachers about what I observe in their classroom.
I present the quotes without comment, letting the students speak for themselves. The teacher fills in the blanks, making his or her own insightful observations and conclusions about what the snippets of conversation reveal about the inner workings of the classroom. I heard literacy coach Jen Allen say once that the essence of good coaching is guiding teachers to making meaning together. I think it is far more powerful to ask an interesting question than to give interesting advice. More powerful still — to let captured moments of student conversation lead our conversations about those students.