How Expert is Expert When You are In Eighth Grade?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.

How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper

What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?

Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?

Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.

The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:

Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?

I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.

Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.

Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.

Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:

If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.

I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.

On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”

Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.

One writer put it this way in another essay:

Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.

Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.

Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.

David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.

In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).

Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!

Add comment November 25th, 2014

Now Online: Readers Writing

Even after modeling and guidance on how to critically respond to reading, many students still open their reader’s notebooks and write what resembles the traditional book report. The skills they need when writing on their own are different from those used in whole-class and small-group reading lessons or when responding to teacher-generated prompts.

In her new book, Readers Writing, Elizabeth Hale offers 93 practical strategy lessons that focus on the specific skills that kids need to write independently in response to reading. Organized by narrative and informational texts, the lessons follow a simple structure that works well with students of any ability level.

Chapters on comprehension, independence, conferring, and assessment support teachers in implementing the lessons within any reading curriculum. The appendix includes numerous book suggestions and how they can be used with the lessons, as well as correlations to CCSS ELA Anchor Standards to support strategic lesson planning and curriculum design.

Readers Writing will improve not only your students’ comprehension but also their critical thinking about reading and writing. You can now preview the entire book online now!

 

Add comment November 18th, 2014

Wrapping up the Revision Decisions blog tour

revision-decisionsI hope you had a chance to visit all of the blogs during our week-long blog tour talking about Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book, Revision Decisions! Today is your last chance to leave a comment on any of the blogs — including this one — for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Here are some highlights from the tour:

The Two Writing Teachers

Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean have a new book that deals with revision in grades 4 – 10.  Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond is a professional book that will help students realize that reseeing, reformulating, redesigning, rethinking, recasting, reshaping, and retweaking isn’t so scary.  In fact it can be fun!  (Yes, I wrote FUN!)

Writing is messy.  As teachers we need to provide our students with opportunities to see our struggles as writers.  When students see us revise (i.e., rewriting, throwing out chunks of text, adding new parts), they’ll come to understand that revision is a natural part of the writing process.

Great writing usually doesn’t pour out in first drafts.  All writers need time and space to revise sentences, paragraphs, or whole pieces of writing multiple times to get it right.

The Reading Zone

Q: In a school system where standardized tests only value quick, rough drafts, how do teachers help students value revision?

Jeff: Great question. A few things come to mind. This same conundrum faces middle and elementary teachers as well as your high school students. First, when we revise often, our first drafts get better each time, right out of the chute. So, the playing with sentences we call for in Revision Decisions lessons, prime our writers best craft to the surface. In exploration and discovery of how sentences can be put together, young writers minds are opened to possibility. These possibilities eventually get applied (sometimes with our nudges). As the Writing Next report (2007) concludes sentence combining is a proven pedagogy for improving student writing in grades 4-12. So there’s that. But also most standardized writing test have a test on revision, editing, and grammar. To pick the best sentences, students need practice at this kind of evaluating, and this is just the kind of practice they’ll get in Revision Decision lessons.

Deborah: We’ve had quite a few teachers ask this question; there is so much concern about testing! But we both believe (and our work with student writers seems to show) that this kind of playing with sentences improves even students’ one-shot writing, which is often all they have time for on tests. After this kind of playing around with sentences and paragraphs, they have more ways of using language effectively stored in their heads, so they can use it spontaneously as well as in situations where they have time to revise and craft more carefully.

The Nerdy Book Club

When Jeff told me that he was working on a new book with the brilliant Deborah Dean, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. If these two thought leaders had something new to teach me, I wanted to learn. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond pushes our thinking as Jeff and Deborah introduce a framework for teaching students how to revise. By framing and naming revision techniques in ways we can model and practice with students, Jeff and Deborah help teachers understand the revision process and move students forward as writers and thinkers.

Focusing on the importance of sentence combining as the foundation of good revision, Jeff and Deborah offer a framework that supports writers first, then their writing. Trust, practice, risk-taking, play—without these fundamentals it’s difficult to engage students with revision.

From this supportive foundation, Jeff and Deborah move teachers step-by-step through model lessons that show young writers how to examine mentor texts, reflect on techniques, and hone in on targeted changes that improve their own writing.

Rich with resources, Revision Decisions offers lesson sets, anchor charts, authentic sentence models from children’s authors like Sarah Albee and Albert Marrin, and conversations from students as they ask questions and learn to revise.

Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

Q: How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?

Jeff’s Response: The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.

Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions.

2 comments November 14th, 2014

See you at NCTE 2014!

It is that time of the year — in a week we are heading off to NCTE in National Harbor, MD. We hope you will stop by booth #215 to check out our crop of new books, find out about upcoming titles, and meet our authors in person. If you are on Twitter, take a photo of yourself in our booth and Tweet it to @stenhousepub for a chance to win a free book for you and a friend!

We will be offering a 25% conference discount and you can take home one of our lovely Stenhouse tote bags as well! Print this handy guide to see when Stenhouse authors are presenting at the conference and when they will be signing at the booth (see signing schedule below).

See you soon!

Friday

Noon: Lee Ann Spillane
1 p.m.: Melissa Stewart
2 p.m.: Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey

Saturday

9:30 a.m.: Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty
10:30 a.m.: Georgia Heard
Noon: Janet Allen
3 p.m.: Kelly Gallagher
4 p.m.: Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean

Sunday

9 a.m.: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
10:30 a.m.: Dorothy Barnhouse

Add comment November 13th, 2014

Science and Language Arts: A Perfect Pair

In their new book Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2, authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley help teachers think about teaching life science in a whole new way by marrying fiction and nonfiction picture books. In this blog post the authors explain why it makes so much sense to combine language arts and science instruction and how their book can put ideas into action.

Perfect PairsScience and Language Arts: A Perfect Pair

According to a recent study, scientists spend 60–70 percent of their time reading, writing, and communicating. Literacy is an authentic part of science.
—Bill Badders, past president of the National Science Teachers Association

The secret is out: there’s a deep and critical connection between the process of doing science and what we generally think of as ELA skills. So doesn’t it make sense to combine science and language arts instruction? Not only is it effective, but it’s also a great way for time-strapped teachers to sneak science into their busy school-day schedule.

How can you put this idea into action? You can start with Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K–2. This resource includes twenty-two lessons built around award-winning picture books that you or your school library may already own.

Studies show that some children connect more strongly with nonfiction books whereas others gravitate toward fiction. Coauthor Nancy Chesley and I have paired thematically similar fiction and nonfiction children’s books and developed innovative activities that simultaneously teach age-appropriate science concepts and cultivate such ELA skills as identifying key details in a text, building content-area vocabulary, understanding the relationship between words and pictures, comparing texts, writing expository texts, and participating in shared research and writing projects.

For each lesson, we started by developing a Wonder Statement that incorporates a science concept typically taught in grades K–2. Examples include the following:

I wonder what plants and animals need to live and grow.
I wonder how animals protect themselves from predators.
I wonder how a rain forest is different from a desert.

After a fun, engaging introductory activity, teachers read the two featured books aloud and work with students to build data tables that organize information from the fiction and nonfiction texts. This part of the lesson models an important skill students will need later as they gather research for reports and extract information from reading passages to answer questions on assessment tests.

At key points in each lesson, students use pictures and words to record ideas and insights in Wonder Journals. Finally, they participate in a fun inquiry activity that helps them synthesize what they’ve learned.

The lesson about what plants and animals need to live and grow pairs two very popular books: The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer and From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer. But there is plenty of room for flexibility. If these books aren’t easily available, you could substitute The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder and Seed, Soil, Sun by Cris Peterson.

If you’d prefer to study animals and plants separately, you could pair The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell first, and then focus on Jack’s Garden by Henry Cole and Seed, Soil, Sun afterward.

It’s also easy to integrate your own creative ideas into our three-step investigative process:

  1. Engage students.
  2. Explore with students.
  3. Encourage students to draw conclusions.

For example, if you are pairing The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail, you could engage students by inviting them to pretend they are snails and act out how they think the animals get what they need to live and grow. If you decide to pair Jack’s Garden and Seed, Soil, Sun, the “engage” part of the lesson could involve a fun card-sorting game or perhaps a reader’s theater.

During the “explore” part of the lesson, the teacher mines the books’ content with her or his class and helps students organize the critical ideas in a meaningful way. Then to bring all of the ideas together and fully address the Wonder Statement, students may engage in paired, small-group, or whole-class discussions. To reinforce the thinking that that comes out of these conversations, we recommend a concluding activity. For example, students might write acrostic poems with the letters in the words water, sunlight, or food. Or they could form Sun, Water, and Food teams and name living things that need their team to survive.

While Perfect Pairs provides specific, detailed ideas and instructions for lessons that address the Next Generation Science Standards, teachers can easily use our investigative process model to design alternate lessons for teaching the concepts mandated by their state science frameworks. It’s a great way to bring science and ELA instruction together.

3 comments November 5th, 2014

Coming Soon: Revision Decisions blog tour!

revision-decisions

 

We are excited to be kicking off a week-long blog tour for Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. The blog tour will start on Monday, November 10 and will visit four amazing blogs where you can read each blogger’s take on the book as well as their interview with the authors. The more blogs you visit and the more you comment the better your chances will be of winning a free copy of the book because we’ll raffle off a book on each blog at the end of the week.

Here is the schedule:

Monday, November 10: The Two Writing Teachers
Tuesday, November 11: The Reading Zone
Wednesday, November 12: The Nerdy Book Club
Thursday, November 13: Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

Friday, November 14: Wrap-up here on the Stenhouse blog!

So, do you have the book? Have you read it? Let us know on Twitter using #revisiondecisions! See you on Monday!

Add comment November 3rd, 2014

Six ways to motivate middle schoolers

rick“When it comes to fostering cognitive perseverance, carrots and sticks don’t work,” writes Rick Wormeli in the September issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Access his article, “Motivating Young Adolescents,” for six effective motivational approaches (as well as the “Top 12 Demotivators”).

Add comment October 27th, 2014

In the Schoolyard: The Tale of the Tape

We are starting — or rather, re-starting — an occasional web series with author Herb Broda, whose books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors encourage teachers to take advantage of the natural surroundings around their schools, whether it’s a concrete slab parking lot, or woods and a stream. “The schoolyard can provide a powerful change of pace and place for enhancing instruction,” he says.  In this series Herb will share activities that can be taken directly into — or out of — the classroom and engage students across the content areas. For this first activity, all you need is a leaf and a piece of paper.

The Tale of the Tape

Process skills cut across conDSC03639tent lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.

Here is an activity that focuses on two process skills that are integral to developing  writers and critical thinkers: observing and describing. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.

What you will need: masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a two or three foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.

Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.

When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list.

Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.

This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.

Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.

Step outside and try the Tale of the Tape. Treat yourself and your students to a change of pace and place!

2 comments October 22nd, 2014

Now Online: 3-Minute Motivators

What do you do when you “lose” your students? How can you become more attuned to their needs and respond in ways that improve your classroom mood, increase harmony, and lead to more productive learning?

The revised and expanded edition of the popular book 3‑Minute Motivators has 200 simple, fun activities for any grade that will help you use “a little magic” to take a quick break, engage students, and refocus them on the task at hand. 150 of the activities are new to this edition, which is conveniently organized into sections for “At your Desks,” “Up and At ‘Em,” and “Let’s Communicate,” and includes a handy subject-area index.

Add comment October 16th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Brophy Elementary School

Our series of case studies about effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books continues today with a visit to Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Mass. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland shares how teachers there used strategies found in the book Academic Conversations to improve their students’ oral language skills in ways that reach beyond the school walls.

Two years ago, when the data team at Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Massachusetts, began searching for ways to improve students’ oral language skills, some members suggested a great resource—Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (Stenhouse, 2011). Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s book identifies five core communication skills to help students hold productive academic conversations across the content areas: elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on and/or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing.

“It’s really a rich approach, making sure students have complex language skills at all levels,” says Sara Hamerla, English language learner (ELL) coach for eight elementary schools in Framingham.

In recent years the percentage of students with limited English proficiency has accelerated at Brophy. Today, more than 60 percent of students are non-native speakers.

Although ELL students needed the most support with oral language, Brophy’s data team realized that strengthening classroom discourse could help all children. By having focused academic conversations, students expand their vocabulary knowledge, learn how to transfer skills from one subject to another, and develop stamina for reading and writing.

“Oral language is a cornerstone on which we build our literacy and learning throughout life. Unfortunately, oral language is rarely taught in depth after third grade,” Zwiers and Crawford write in Academic Conversations. “In many classrooms, talking activities are used in limited ways, often just to check learning of facts and procedures rather than to teach or deepen understandings.”

By practicing strategies such as think-pair-share and answering with memorized sentence stems, students can learn to ask insightful questions, negotiate meaning, and critically evaluate evidence. They can also learn to keep track of what they are hearing, describe a speaker’s points in their own words, and elaborate on ideas.

“Take a look at a typical standards list and highlight the verbs that ask students to do something,” the authors suggest. “You might see terms such as evaluate, distinguish, outline, summarizes, analyze, and hypothesize. Most of these are actually thinking skills that are often best developed in conversation. Moreover, some of these skills need to be developed in conversation, and if we remove this avenue, we weaken students’ chances for academic success.”

Active Listening

With the needs of their students in mind, the Brophy data team members read Academic Conversations and then decided to introduce the recommended skills to the faculty over time so they could get familiar with the approach without feeling overwhelmed. Brophy principal Frank Rothwell encouraged implementation of the Academic Conversations strategies as a schoolwide initiative.

In addition to the recommended skills, the Brophy team introduced another oral language skill—active listening—because they realized that many students did not know how to participate in both ends of a conversation.

“The idea is that we wanted to explicitly teach students how to be active listeners instead of just passive recipients of information,” says Judy Flynn, a Brophy teacher who works with English language learners. “For example, they could show they were listening by nodding their heads or making eye contact or saying ‘Hmm’ or ‘Oh, really?’ It seems silly at first, but we take for granted that students know how to do this.”

Brophy’s data team also modified the order of the core conversational skills to better align with students’ developmental paths. They started by modeling good academic conversations, explaining why they are important, and using anchor charts to identify important concepts such as staying on topic and taking turns talking and listening. Then they moved on to active listening, paraphrasing/retelling, elaborating, supporting ideas with examples, and finally synthesizing.

“It has changed our teaching dramatically,” Flynn says. “Instead of being teacher directed, we have switched to being student directed. The teacher is responsible for creating a rich prompt, and then the students do all the work. They’re having a conversation with each other, back and forth, challenging each other, building on what each other has said, using evidence from the text they’re working on or have connected to prior learning. The likelihood that a classroom will be silent is very small. You would absolutely see either pairs or trios of students having a dialogue about the topic.”

Flynn and Hamerla developed sample lesson plans to guide teachers and a conversational analysis protocol to help them listen to the language their students are producing. Teachers use the protocol to plan interventions and subsequent lessons, depending on students’ needs. Many have also accepted Hamerla’s offer to plan lessons together and coteach until they gain confidence in the procedures.

After a successful first year using Academic Conversations at Brophy, Flynn and Hamerla decided to share the techniques with teachers throughout the school district. They developed a two-credit graduate course through Framingham State University, with Academic Conversations as the “cornerstone.” Hosting the course after school hours at Brophy, they have attracted teachers from a wide range of disciplines.

“It was very exciting because not only were teachers from the core academic areas interested, but we also had a PE teacher, a school social worker, and an art teacher participating in the first course,” Hamerla says. “We found it was really pertinent across all areas. The PE teacher was so excited because with the new emphasis on the Common Core State Standards, we all need to be on board and even specialist teachers are contributing to literacy learning. This is a way they can be involved. It’s been really exciting to see how those academic conversations have been applied in different settings.”

Analyzing the Discourse

Last school year, Hamerla obtained consent from parents to research the progress of students at Brophy. She videotaped their classroom conversations once a month and then transcribed and analyzed them. She says she noted big improvements in the quality of their dialogues. For example, students were better able to use “cohesion devices,” which are transitions that link ideas in academic discourse. Common cohesion devices in school include likewise to compare, conversely to contrast, consequently to express cause and effect, and furthermore to add ideas and evidence. Zwiers and Crawford suggest many ways to help students practice cohesion devices, such as a pro-con activity in which one partner assumes the role of the “director” who names the topic and announces the “pro” or “con” side, which prompts the partner (the “speaker”) to think of related points to express.

Other observations showed Hamerla that the students’ academic conversations needed more refinement. Teachers began sharing and practicing “talk moves” to help students understand how to extend a conversation. For example, they might respond to and clarify a peer’s statement by adding “So what you’re saying is . . . ” or “Something else that goes along with this is . . . ”

“At the beginning of my study I noticed that students were unable to synthesize their conversations,” Hamerla says. “At the end they would just stop talking and be like, ‘We’re done.’ We taught them to synthesize and complete the conversation with a conclusion and some sort of agreement: ‘So in conclusion, we both believe. . . ,’ or, ‘Based on our conversation we can decide that . . . ’ It was the sentence starters we provided that really taught them to take this to the next level.”

Students have become so proficient at using the skills that they frequently ask to use them throughout the school day—for example, by holding academic conversations about the characters in fiction they are reading. To extend their fluency, Assistant Principal Sara Cummins introduced Topic Tuesdays. On those days, students are asked to have an academic conversation about the chosen theme with whomever they sit with at lunch. Teachers provide scaffolding for English language learners, such as providing word banks and sentence frames that the children can use and refer to during conversations.

Reaching Beyond the Classroom

To help families understand the changes happening in their children’s classrooms, Brophy’s teacher leaders have hosted meetings with the parent-teacher organization and with parents of bilingual students. Staff members also send home examples of sentence starters that parents can use to extend conversations and encourage their children to elaborate. If a child offers a limited response to the standard question, “How was school today?” the parent could say, “I’d like you to add on to that because your teacher told me you were working on . . . ” Or if someone in the family makes a statement, parents could ask another child to expand on it by saying, “I agree/disagree because . . . ,” or, “An example of this is . . . ”

“Parents are really excited and are thankful for concrete strategies they can do at home,” Flynn says.

Hamerla, Flynn, and their colleagues have continued to refine their adaptation of Academic Conversations every year. This past school year they conducted a schoolwide survey of teachers to measure reported changes in teaching and learning. The data team members also conducted a learning walkthrough where they moved in and out of classrooms and asked students to articulate their thinking and reasoning using multiple means of expression.

Teachers have reported good progress in students’ oral language skills, particularly for those who have been practicing the Academic Conversations techniques for two years. But they also mention the need for more instructional coaching to help them know how to continue refining students’ skills.

Academic Conversations has been a portal” to greater language development, one teacher says. “Young students in first and second grade have developed listening and speaking skills faster because they were explicitly taught. We need constant coaching to maintain our stamina as teachers and perpetuate this amazing lifelong learning approach!”

“My students very much enjoy academic conversations but still have difficulty with some of the more advanced skills,” says a kindergarten teacher. “Some of them are still struggling with just social conversations. So we will get there . . . just not quite yet.”

Hamerla and Flynn say they are most eager to see how well the children carry their skills to middle school, high school, and beyond.

“I can’t wait to hear what they do when they interview for jobs in the future,” Flynn says. “Our students are being trained as great conversationalists who can share their thinking and contribute to the dialogue.”

3 comments October 9th, 2014

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