Mindy is a first-year, third-grade teacher. I am her literacy instructional coach. This article is the story of a time when Mindy experienced a common problem of practice and how I used transcripts of student-teacher conversations as a tool for helping her solve it.
The setting of our story is the first day of a new science unit called “Where in the World Is Water?” I was observing the lesson after Mindy and I had met to review her plan and to choose a focus for my observation. In our pre-observation meeting, Mindy explained that she was feeling frustrated by the lack of transfer between what she was teaching students about effective science writing and students’ ability to apply the teaching in their own work.
In particular, the class had been learning to add vivid language to observations in their field notes, and yet many students were still writing basic sentences that lacked descriptive adjectives and verbs. I assured Mindy that the “lack of transfer” she was describing was a common problem of practice, even among experienced teachers. We would work on solving it by making the focus of my visit an observation of third graders’ writing after Mindy ran a review of strategies for vivid writing.
Mindy’s lesson started with a discussion designed to activate her third graders’ background knowledge about the science unit’s essential question, “Where in the world is water?” Next, she introduced “I notice/I wonder” as a tool for supporting students to use evidence in photographs of water to ask questions.
After that, students did a carousel activity with a partner, looking closely at different photographs of water posted around the perimeter of the room. Their job was to write their noticings and wonderings on a sticky note and then to put them in the appropriate column on the notice/wonder anchor chart. Noticings needed to be written in complete sentences, and words in those sentences needed to include vivid language. Before partners set out on their task, Mindy spent time reviewing their double-column anchor chart for vivid language, with examples of descriptive nouns and adjectives on one side and precise verbs on the other.
While pairs of kids moved around the photograph carousel, discussing what they noticed and wondered, and then writing those on sticky notes, Mindy and I circled the room, too, listening and watching what they wrote.
Pretty quickly, I saw an example of Mindy’s “transfer problem” on this sticky note, written by Hazel:
There’s a waterfall and water under it with trees.
Listening to Mindy talk with Hazel about how to make her writing more vivid gave me some ideas for how a transcript of teacher-student conversations could help Mindy see more transfer, that evidence of “instructional influence” she was looking for, in her students’ writing.
Transcripts to the Rescue
A transcript is simply a written record of the conversational back-and-forth between or among people. Although video analysis is an all-star professional development tool for studying teaching and learning, I have found that transcripts are a powerful complement to video analysis, and can even steal the show as a stand-alone sidekick when they zoom in on developing a small teaching move that can shake out that stone in a teacher’s shoe.
When I first started experimenting with transcripts of teacher-student talk, I used excerpts from Karen Gallas’s book Talking Their Way into Science and Vivian Gussin Paley’s The Girl with the Brown Crayon, but I quickly realized the value in writing my own transcripts to customize a classroom scene that matches something specific teachers are doing in their classrooms. This was the case with two transcripts I used in my coaching session with Mindy.
Considering the gap we were seeing between Mindy’s careful teaching with guided practice and many students’ continued struggle to write with vivid language, I decided to focus on eliciting and interpreting students’ thinking in our debrief. Specifically, I wanted to talk with Mindy about putting more responsibility on students for articulating how they were thinking, and where they understood they could look for support, by “slowing the pace of questioning and us[ing] repetition or leveled prompts to allow students time to process language and develop a response” (quoted from a description of eliciting and interpreting students’ thinking as a high-leverage practice from TeachingWorks, here).
With this micro-teaching move in mind, I wrote a transcript designed to help us think about how Hazel was interpreting expectations for her writing and then to talk through approaches that both honored Hazel’s thinking and provided feedback that supported her ability to include more vivid language in her sentences.
The Post-Lesson Debrief
We began our debrief of Mindy’s lesson by reading this short back-and-forth:
Teacher: Hazel, I see you used a complete sentence to describe what you and Tori noticed in this photograph. What else did we agree our sentences should include? Is there a place in the room where you can look?
Hazel [looks at anchor chart with examples of descriptive nouns, verbs, and adjectives]: Umm . . . colors?
Teacher: Colors, yes, that’s something we talked about. What colors do you see in this photograph?
Hazel: Blue and green.
Teacher: Right. Talk with Tori about other words you could use, and then add them to your sticky note. Just put a caret and write the color above it, okay?
In analyzing this first transcript, Mindy admired the way the teacher started by saying what Hazel was doing well and then provided strong scaffolding with her series of questions.
We talked about the fact that the teacher’s questions took the brakes off Hazel’s thinking—as a result of the conversation, Hazel was ready to move forward with language to make her writing more vivid.
Then we read another version of the conversation in a second transcript:
Teacher: Hazel, I see you used a complete sentence to describe what you and Tori noticed in this photograph. What else did we agree our sentences should include?
Hazel: Umm . . . colors?
Teacher: Colors—we did talk about that. [Pause]
Hazel: And actions?
Teacher: Actions—what does that mean? [Pause]
Hazel [looks at anchor chart]: Like what something is doing, but say it really specifically.
Teacher: Got it. When you say actions, you mean verbs. Verbs are the kinds of words that show actions. I saw you look at the anchor chart to remind you of that. What do you think about this complete sentence you wrote when you think about colors and actions? Can you give me an example?
Hazel: Well, I could write what color the waterfall is. Or I could say the waterfall is crashing into the water under it.
Teacher: Those additions would make your sentence more vivid. What would you think if Tori added crashing to our anchor chart under “strong verbs” while you wrote that on your sticky note?
Teacher: Do you need to rewrite your sentence on a new sticky note?
Hazel: No, I’ll just add words above.
With this second transcript, the conversation was obviously longer, and Mindy pointed out that Hazel was at the same point by the end, ready to write more vividly as a result of her talk with the teacher. Given the similar outcome, I asked Mindy if she thought one conversation was more effective than the other, particularly when considering the stone in her shoe about some students’ struggle to apply what she taught.
In talking through her answer, Mindy noticed that in the second transcript, the teacher asked questions by repeating what Hazel said, pausing, and using probes like “What does that mean?” rather than providing or confirming answers too quickly. She also noticed that the teacher didn’t evaluate Hazel’s answers (avoiding “That’s right”), instead revoicing what she heard Hazel say. The result was to hear more from Hazel about what she already knew about descriptive language, like adjectives and verbs, while reinforcing the strategies she was using independently (checking the anchor chart) to support her writing.
I talked to Mindy about the subtle difference between conversations with students that guide their thinking and conversations that elicit their thinking. Knowing that different situations and different students require different levels of support, we can develop our skills for guiding and for eliciting using a bank of question-asking and eliciting strategies. For building students’ capacity to apply new learning to their independent work, eliciting and interpreting their thinking goes a long way toward building self-awareness and confidence.
Some favorite stems for eliciting and interpreting student thinking come straight from TeachingWorks:
- What did you notice about . . . ?
- What did you like/dislike about . . . ?
- What jumped out to you as you read or saw . . . ?
Probing prompts to understand more student thinking:
- Tell me more about that.
- What do you mean [by ______]?
- Do you mean like this? [intentionally doing it wrong to get student to clarify thinking]
- Can you give me an example?
- Why do you think that?
- When you say ______, do you mean ______?
Prompts to extend students’ current thinking:
- What would happen if . . . ?
- What else can you say about . . . ?
- If ______, how would the story change?
- Do you think everyone who reads this would agree with . . . ?
- If you were the author, how would you explain . . . ?
After using transcripts in a few coaching sessions, I asked teachers what benefits they saw compared with using videos. We came to consensus around a couple of big outcomes:
- Transcripts put boundaries around how much we need to think about when we’re studying our practice.
- Transcripts allow us to slow the roll—although you can stop and replay video to discuss a teaching scene, having a typed-up record of a conversation as an alternative to watching and listening helped teachers really contemplate the situation we were analyzing.
I am excited about the possibilities transcripts offer as another tool in my coaching toolbox, and although writing a transcript is time intensive, I am confident that soon I will have a collection I can reuse to coach teachers through many different problems of practice.