Ellin Keene is the author or coauthor of many books for literacy educators, including the classic Mosaic of Thought. She has spent much time in the past four years developing her new work linking oral language and literacy development. In this podcast with Brenda Power, she explains the genesis of the book, and makes connections between talking, listening, and understanding.
A full transcript is available below the player.
Brenda Power: I wanted to talk a little bit about the ideas of habits, and it’s not just individual professional habits in the classroom. But your book really, I think, gets readers, teachers thinking about the kind of language we use all the time. Like, for example – like, “say one thing you like in a piece” – and you really challenge teachers to use a more sophisticated, specific language when they’re in workshops and their classrooms. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ellin Keene: Well, yes, I can, because this came, Brenda, from my own teaching, and it came more recently from viewing videotape of myself teaching. And I – oh my goodness, that is the hardest thing in the world to do.
Brenda: Oh, isn’t it awful?
Ellin: I mean you just – really, you just want to say, “I should be selling towels at Macy’s,” you know? I should not be teaching. But it’s really an important thing to do to look at your own videotape. So I look at my own and a number of teachers’ who were kind enough to share some footage with me. And what I found was that there are some very, very clear and really predictable patterns in our oral language that seem to inhibit – though we don’t mean it to, of course – to inhibit kids’ understanding.
So there are some basic kinds of things that we tend to do as teachers that are actually squashing – they’re actually inhibiting kids’ understanding. So I have a list of those patterns of behavior and those language patterns. Like a couple of them are – this one was my – it’s the worst one. I am very excited when I am working with kids, and so I tend to raise the volume and the speed of my language, because I’m just excited to be with them. And I’m enthusiastic, and I’m wanting them to do this.
I’m, “So we’re going to do this great thing – we’re going to get” – and the kids are looking at me like, “Whoa, look at her go.” And of course, then who’s doing the heavy lifting in terms of thinking? I’m running around saying, “Oh, I’m thinking about this, I’m thinking about this,” and what I learned to do was to take a very deep breath before I begin instruction or a conference, to slow down, to lower the volume and slow the speed of my speech. Not all the time – I think it’s important to vary your speech patterns.
But when I sort of took that breath and just lowered the volume and the speed, it’s almost like the kids took a huge, deep breath, and said, “Thank goodness – she’s shutting up.” You know, it just gave them the space and time to think. And I realized that so many of our colleagues, Brenda, just feel like they’re just under such incredible pressure to get things done, and to get things in. I feel like sometimes our oral language – and it’s not just speed and volume. But we get into habitual oral language patterns that are just not good for fostering understanding in the classroom.
And it’s so hard to see the forest for the trees when it’s our own work. So video here I think is really helpful. But I also developed a little tool that goes with the book, where a colleague, a trusted colleague, totally outside of the appraisal process, can come in and just catch us in some of these oral language patterns. And then we can do the same for the colleague, because it’s very tough to pick them out in your own speech patterns. It is a forest from the trees situation, so there’s a little tool that colleagues can use to kind of identify what those patterns are, and then work collaboratively to help each other make some revisions.
Brenda: Well, and as I was reading and thinking about that idea of bringing the volume down, and also being more comfortable with silences, it made me think that when you’re discussing something important in real life, it’s often very quiet. And I notice when I go in and observe conferences with wonderful teachers and children, they’re often fairly quiet. There’s a good amount of silence and I almost think there’s something physiological going on that you can’t put – when you’re putting a lot of energy into thinking, you can’t put as much energy into the volume and the speed.
Ellin: It’s true, yeah.
Brenda: Slowing down actually gives you more energy for that hard thought work that needs to go on.
Ellin: And being comfortable with silence is another big one. I find that kids are so much more comfortable with silence than are we adults. And we just sort of think we have to fill in all the conversational blanks, and that that’s what conversation is. But with kids, I’m just trying to, in my own teaching, really work hard to give kids the time to think. To not – you know, if someone wants to share something, to not say, “Oh, thank you, honey, great; anybody else?” But to really linger with that child, and say, “What else, honey? What else were you thinking?”
And then take your time to think. You know, when kids pause now, I’m really saying, “Gosh, is that so smart, to take your time to think?” Gosh, I hope the rest of you do that as well, because it’s so brilliant just to take your time to think. And so to try to really encourage those times that we actually sort of consider uncomfortable in adult language. I think we ought to be getting a lot more comfortable with them.
Brenda: So what I’m hearing is that there is a few things as someone’s trying to think about their habits with language and maybe break them a bit. One is to have a colleague observe. Another is to really just bring down the volume and see how that feels. And the third is to really have some silences in your classroom that feel downright awkward to you, because that will mean you’ve changed the pace a little bit.
Ellin: Yeah, exactly. Yes. Yes to all of the above. Actually, I propose ten different principles that we can think about, and some will apply – I call them the “talk about understanding principles.” Some will apply more to some teachers then others will apply to others, because we all have our different patterns. So what I’m suggesting is we take a look at our patterns first, and then really look at the principles to see, “Oh my gosh, what could I really work on more?” The principles are of course aligned with this little observation instrument.
And that we are able then to use those principles just to make – and these are minor modifications in oral language. These are not big changes, but they do make a huge difference, again, in terms of that staying power for understanding, in content areas as well as in text that kids are writing, and reading.
Brenda: Well, I think the book’s going to get teachers really talking, but especially, I think, thinking about their talk in new ways. So it’s a wonderful contribution, Ellin.
Ellin: Thank you, Brenda. It’s fun to get to talk about it.