Recording language gives teachers a chance to re-hear the conversations in their classrooms. Recording devices have always been a staple tool for teachers, and with 21st-century technologies, the possibilities for capturing the language events in a variety of teaching and learning activities has grown.
Our intrepid group of teacher-researchers have been reading Peter Johnston's Choice Words, which has served as an inspiration to focus on the language that influences our classroom dialogues. Without the chance to hear the language more than one time, the subtle messages and metaphors that frame our classroom community can be invisible to us. Simply turning on a recorder and "listening in" can provide compelling data.
Ally Cross started a "book talk" group reading conference time with her kindergartners. But she was frustrated with the conversations, and told us she was thinking of deleting the book talks altogether since "the books they were choosing didn't seem to provide much of an opportunity to dig deep." She decided to gather more data by recording the conversations. When she listened to the recordings, she was able to hear her students talking in the background as they were working at their tables. "I was astounded at the types of conversations they were having with one another. . .and I decided to listen closely to the 'background noise' on my recordings and analyze the language of my students. " Ally was stunned with what she learned:
"The students working at their tables were all doing one of three things: making connections with their current projects to another concept they learned inside or outside of school; helping each other finish work or find supplies; or playing with the sounds of language. What I heard was fascinating! Listening to these conversations made me think about the importance of opportunities to talk in the classroom. When I have been doing reading groups on the carpet, I have been shh-ing these conversations daily. About 90% of the time, the conversations were on-topic and useful in helping others understand concepts they might not have grasped earlier in class. The students I listened to were trying out many different language uses and from this, they were receiving immediate feedback from their peers."
Andy Kulak, another teacher-researcher in our group, works with older students at an urban high school. He told us he has been concerned with the language he uses to get his classes settled in and started on the day's lesson. He created a table organized by "choice words" (from Peter Johnston), such as "noticing and naming"; "identity"; "agency," and so forth. Next to this column is a column for "Practice" which records the date and time, as well as a brief note of the language excerpt.
"In a classroom of 35 tenth-grade learners buffeted from room to room throughout the day, I have come to put heavy weight on the moments just before and moments just after that ripping sound, that relic of the Industrial Revolution, that Pavlovian reminder of subservience, that bell. For my transcription analysis, I wanted to discover how I used language pre- and post-bell."
Andy's analysis showed some of his most "choice words" were actually during those pre- and post-bell moments in the classroom. As he reflects in his narrative about what he learned, "Things begin to shift at line 21: a bell sounds. On the recording, my voice stiffens and deepens. The warmth that led to the dialogues before class has been replaced with a more austere delivery . . . [Looking at my chart], I can see opportunities for change, attending to individual needs during class time as effectively as I do before class. It is my hope that within the first couple of weeks in the next term, my classroom voice will have fewer dramatic shifts, making my students' class-to-class transitions more seamless and productive for them."
Whether they work with young children or young adults, the teachers in our support group are all finding ways to improve their teaching practice by listening closely to language in the classroom. Recording tools have never been more accessible: some use their iPhones with a microphone app, others use standard audio recorders, and still others rely on their computers, phones, or cameras.
We came up with a list of tips for other teachers who decide to "listen in" in their classrooms:
1. Narrow your recording to what is doable — to actually replay and listen to.
2. Transcribe the segments that you want to focus on, or share with colleagues.
3. Download to an iPod or other listening device so you can "listen in" at convenient times, such as commutes to and from school.
4. Play back excerpts for student analysis.