“Who has an idea they’d like to share?” I ask my students, wanting to hear whether they’re on the right track.
“Anyone? Anyone?” Oh no, I sound like the teacher from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“How about you, Eva?” Eva always has something to share. Eva shares. Phew! Disaster averted…for now.
Does this scene feel familiar? For more years than I care to admit, this was an all-too-common occurrence in my classroom. To make things worse, if it wasn’t deadly silence, then it was calling on students with raised hands one at a time, each one of them playing their own personal game of Atari’s Pong with me. (Eighties kids will remember that video game; everyone else, think a game of really slow ping-pong—really slow.) Then the topper to all of this was calling on a student who shared an off-topic response, leaving me to rack my brain for a reply that wouldn’t squash the sharer’s ego.
In our quest to engage students, to assess what they know, to develop their oral language, we sometimes ask questions of the group and then elicit individual responses from students who raise their hands. We might even use “equity sticks”—those sticks with a person’s name on each one that you pick randomly to hear from more voices. However, using these structures means we inadvertently end up teaching kids to tune out when it’s not their turn, assessing only a few students, and developing oral language for the ones participating. With the use of “equity sticks” we may even unintentionally harm students by making them feel embarrassed or put on the spot.
Luckily, I had a coach who shared a different way to get kids talking in the classroom. It’s a strategy you’re probably already familiar with, but maybe you don’t use it as often as you could. Or maybe you use it, but still find yourself back at the same place afterward. The strategy is to get kids to turn and talk. Yup, that’s it. It’s true there are ways we can make the turn-and-talk more meaningful and complex, but the first step is to just use turn-and-talk instead of playing Pong.
“I already do turn-and-talk,” you might be saying, “but then when I ask kids to share, it’s back to crickets.” Or “When I do turn-and-talk, the room becomes chaotic.”
Here are a few tips and tweaks to level up your turn-and-talks.
Don’t ask for volunteers or pull a stick out of the jar. Instead, listen around the room as kids talk to their partners. Then name for them the things you heard. When you share for the students, you can highlight exactly the ideas you want to and it will feel validating for more students. You also avoid the awkward correction of wrong answers. What if no one shares a very important idea you want to get across? Just give it to them.
Here’s what it might sound like:
T: Get ready to share the ideas you have with your partner. Okay, turn and share (talk).
Teacher listens in on conversations, perhaps even coaching partners to elicit more information from each other.
T: Okay, here are some of the ideas I heard from several partnerships.
Some ways to share ideas for students:
- Many of you were saying…while some of you shared…
- I heard [name of student who could use a status boost] share…
- I’m also wondering if some of you were thinking…[insert important idea that no one actually shared].
One of the pitfalls with using turn-and-talks for me was getting too involved in one partnership’s conversation. Not only did I end up taking over the conversation, but I lost the rest of the class who had already wrapped up their talk. Instead of joining a conversation, it helped to coach alongside the kids. This might be giving tips to students in their ear, much like a football coach does with the quarterback. Whenever I wanted to ask a question of a partnership to push their thinking and talking, I would whisper the question to one of the partners to ask the question instead.
Coaching can also take the form of voice-overs, more like the coach yelling suggestions onto the field, but without the yelling. These voice-overs can include questions to ask or listening/speaking behavior tips. They can also include sentence starters partners can use. This is great when coupled with a visual of the sentence starters.
It’s easy to ask kids to just turn and talk to the person next to them, but that doesn’t always result in the most productive conversations. Sometimes pairs aren’t comfortable talking to each other, and sometimes they’re too comfortable. Setting partners up ahead of time based on their needs and their ability to work together can make conversations more meaningful.
For subjects like writing, it can be helpful to create long-term partnerships rather than switching them often, since sharing writing can be such a vulnerable process. Even reading conversations can benefit from long-term pairings. I once observed a fifth-grade class during their reading block and marveled at both the depth of the conversation and the rapport the readers had with each other. It turns out they had been partners all year long and had been partners in fourth grade as well!
There are also some instances when it’s helpful to create triads. For emergent bilingual learners, a trio can help with language support, but also act as conversational models. You might also have students who need more social support. When teamed up with a pair of students who are more proficient, again they can see a model. Also, the proficient partners will still receive mutual support. Finally, a triad is sometimes needed when you have students who are chronically absent or pulled from class often.
You might be thinking that this sounds good (it does, right?), but there are times when students need to share to the group. That’s a skill. I agree. And there’s a time and a place for that as well. When we do share individually, it’s usually when we’re discussing a topic around which students need and want to grow ideas in the company of others. This might be discussing the possibilities of a theme at the end of a book or a debatable issue in history. If the class is working on a whole-group discussion like this, I want to focus on creating a space for dialogue and avoid the Teacher-Student–back to Teacher–Next Student pattern.
To create this space, we need to equip students with some tools to do this effectively. Hands Down, Speak Out by Wedekind and Thompson is a fantastic resource for teaching kids explicit skills for whole-class conversations. (Check out even more resources below.) It also requires some patience and grit on your part, because the kids will not be successful right away.
I recently conducted a series of model lessons for teachers, and each group commented on the use of turn-and-talk along with sharing for the kids. Some of the feedback I heard: “More of my kids who don’t like to share were sharing today!” “That took so much less time than when I call on the kids.” That small change made such a difference.
Leveling up your turn-and-talks can save you from standing at the front of the room repeating, “Bueller…Bueller,” or waiting for one student to share a really elaborate and convoluted response that, well, is on the wrong track. It can also save the other students from waiting around for a response or listening to something that actually won’t add to their learning.
Turn and talk to your colleague: What do you think?
My top three professional reads to help students with academic conversations:
Building Bigger Ideas by Maria Nichols
Hands Down, Speak Out by Kassia Wedekind and Christy Thompson
Teaching Talk by Kara Pranikoff