At a recent dinner party, my friend’s six-year-old daughter, Anicia, sidled up to me. “You’re a principal, right?”
“My teacher says I talk too much.”
I smiled. Anicia was, by any measure, an insatiable talker.
“She says I need to listen more. Take turns.”
“What does she do to help you learn how to listen?”
She rolled her eyes theatrically and put her finger to her earlobe. “She does this when she wants me to stop talking. It’s our special code. I have to wait and wait and wait, until she stops touching her ear, before I can talk again.”
I was pleased to hear Anicia’s conceptual understanding of her conversational challenges and of her teacher’s plan to address them. In my role, I get to observe students for six or seven straight years as they work their way through elementary school. In the beginning, as kindergartners, they carry a wide spectrum of conversational prowess; some could talk all day long, whereas others barely make a peep. Some listen carefully, eagerly absorbing the thoughts of their teachers and peers, and others pull back and hear only select voices that manage to permeate their private thoughts.
Over time, students’ conversational identities begin to solidify. I see it happening in unstructured environments—at lunchtime, at recess, when they are working in groups without teacher support—and it’s fascinating how a student’s talking and listening tactics are developed and reinforced in the school environment. Over time, with practice and feedback, and combined with the input they get outside of school, I see students grow into the talkers and listeners they will be as they move toward adulthood.
I don’t believe one single teacher is the deal maker or breaker in the type of communicator a student turns out to be. There are too many factors (including personality, home life, peer relations, nature, nurture) to boil it down to one single classroom interaction or environment. Yet I do believe teachers’ awareness of students’ emerging conversational identity matters, so teachers have a responsibility to make sure their students are in a place of comfort, generosity, and mutual understanding when communicating. I appreciate when teachers provide fair, thoughtful, frequent opportunities for all students to become eloquent speakers and thoughtful listeners.
Not long ago, I developed a list of questions to use to explore this issue. I use these as part of conversations with teachers in post-observation meetings.
- Do you have a formal conversation structure in your classroom? How do you introduce and implement that structure?
- Are all children given the opportunity to talk during minilesson and workshop time? Are they also given the opportunity to pass?
- Do your students expect to listen and respond to classmates carefully? How do you—and your students—respond when this isn’t happening?
- How are students taught to be concise and focused when they confer with others?
- How do you respond to students who love to monopolize the conversation?
- When students are quiet and prefer not to speak, how do you come to understand their conversational comfort areas?
- Have you thought about your own personal biases toward students who seem to do too much of something—too much silence, too much chatter? Does that bias translate to annoyance and impatience, or are you easily able to channel it into a learning opportunity?
I am careful to ask these questions without accusation or judgment. I set the tone by admitting my own bias: “When I was a teacher, I struggled with students who tried to monopolize the conversation, and I had to actively work against my own frustration.” Then I’ll transfer my admission to my questions about their classroom. “You have some real talkers in your class. You also have some students who appear introverted and quiet. Can you tell me about some of the conscious decisions you make to enable conversational growth in your classroom?”
Teachers usually enjoy digging into this topic. Facilitating student conversation is an exhausting and never-ending task; they are relieved when someone acknowledges it, recognizes its value, and offers a safe place to reflect upon it.
Back to my conversation with Anicia: After learning about her teacher’s nonverbal cue to manage oversharing, I asked her, “What does your teacher want for you? What are your goals?”
Anicia responded immediately: “She wants me to be a good listener. She says she’ll know we’ve achieved our goal when she doesn’t have to put her hand to her ear so much.” She sounded triumphant and confident in her goal. I gave her a happy high-five, and she scampered off.
Anicia’s mother, who is a friend, had wandered nearby and overheard the last bit. “Anicia’s teacher is right—she never stops talking,” she said, collapsing into her chair. “At our parent-teacher conference, the teacher told me some of the strategies she’s using to get her to quiet down and listen. I am trying some of them at home.”
“Is it working?”
“It seems to be helping,” Anicia’s mother said. “I’m keeping track of how many times I touch my ear throughout an evening. The teacher and I share our data. We’re both seeing steady decreases as the year goes on.”
As with anything, being aware of conversational identities and the ways our young students communicate with one another helps build a sense of community based on a fair and equal distribution of student contribution, respect, and response. There are implications beyond our classrooms as well, particularly when we think about how students build confidence, handle conflicts, and value the input of others. In Anicia’s case, having a teacher actively work on communication—and pair up with Anicia’s mother in setting and monitoring goals—will serve her well as she matures into a reciprocal communicator.