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Say What? Guest Blog Post – Accountable Talk in The Classroom

I think you’re going to love this guest blog post, written by expert teacher, Julie Faulkner. Julie has been teaching English in TN for over 10 years. She has taught 7-12 English as well as composition and literature at the college level.  Julie has worked this past year as a common core trainer in ELA for TN to train teachers to implement common core. 

Take it away , Julie! 

Do you ever wonder why some students are so quiet during classroom discussions? Could it be because…They don’t have a clue what to say? Maybe they don’t want to be judged by their peers? Or maybe they don’t see the point?  This summer I spent hours training and preparing for common core.  In doing so, I realized effective speaking and listening are hugely significant and tied directly to everything else.  It became very apparent that effective communication, though, goes way beyond common core and the classroom – it is critical for college and career readiness.

To elaborate a little there – a short story – my husband works for a major business corporation in the US and takes conference calls daily. Never did I realize until I was thinking about how to incorporate talk into my classroom, how this practice actually does fit the mold for “college and career readiness.”  I will also say here, that up until this point, I was actually struggling for rationale as to why I should even “waste” my precious class time with discussions.  So, this summer I overhead my husband using what we call in the academic world “accountable talk stems.” After I asked him about it, he elaborated that effective communication was critical – maybe even one of the most important things his job requires. Thus was born my entire pedagogical approach and rationale for implementing thoughtful and structured academic talk. 

To me accountable talk occurs two ways in the classroom – what the teacher says and what the students say.  Teachers usually talk a lot in the classroom setting. After all, we are responsible for covering material, questioning, checking for understanding, and managing class time, right? While the former is true, I realized quickly that what I said and how I said it in my classroom could actually make or break student growth.  As a result, I began to change my questioning patterns to use “smart talk stems” myself.  But that wasn’t all – WARNING – this next part might be painful.  I began to wait on students to answer me.  Yes, crickets and all. And in the beginning there were lots of crickets.  I was so used to throwing out a question, and if the student couldn’t answer right away, I’d answer for him/her for the sake of time or fear of it looking like I hadn’t explained the topic clearly enough.  I might even let another student bail him/her out.  Students are used to be nurtured in that way, and it became very apparent to me that I was guilty of giving students an easy way out to the point of actually crippling them from being able to struggle and articulate their own thoughts.  Secondly, I realized that I had been allowing students to only answer half-way or maybe even incorrectly.  If they answered with a correct one-word response, I would drop it and move on. If they answered partially wrong, I would reword it for them to make it correct.  Suddenly, I realized I was doing all of the questioning and answering.  In that regard, sadly I had no true measurement of their understanding. I began to slow down- to ask students to explain in their own words. I asked other more eager students to wait and then elaborate on the prior student to teach listening and feedback skills. 

Additionally, to truly be able to express a thought and to be productive, there must be justification.  Students must be able to say why or how they know with credible reasoning.  In my ELA classroom, it is easy to correct a comma in daily oral language and move on. Or, we can fix a subject-verb error “because it just didn’t sound right.” That type of justification doesn’t truly do students any good the next time they encounter that same mistake.  I wanted my students to learn how to not only have the answer, but to have the answer and be able to say why.

Once I began to model accountable talk practices with my students, speaking and listening came more naturally to them when it came time for them to host their own talk time. I didn’t start out eating the whole elephant here, either, with this second leg of accountable talk.  This type of practices takes a long time to develop.  I began to put students in pairs for a “turn and talk” or “pair/share” type activity. We practiced with topics that were easy to discuss. Then we moved to whole group discussions.  Each time, though, students come prepared to talk with something they have written first.  Afterwards, we also write again to sum up the discussion or for reflection.  The talking portion of class is tied to the text and the task. Ultimately, we have a triangle of talk-text-task (and not necessarily in that order every time).

I am reminded of a country music song lyric (not surprising given my TN home) that says, “It’s all talk, talk, talk- talking in the wind.”  Unfortunately, a lot of times that can be true. We talk in circles; some talk too much, and others don’t speak up at all.  Some comments are useful and some derail the main point.  I think having a goal and modeling is crucial for the success of the discussion.  Students must be learning not only what is an effective way to listen and speak to each other, but they also must be gaining subject-area content knowledge.   And, I think that’s the ticket – this is just yet another tool in our deep and wide toolbox to help us prepare our students for the world in which they must eventually enter and be productive citizens.

 –Julie Faulkner


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