Quick Tip Tuesday: Teacher Talk

January 12th, 2010

All teachers have been in a situation where they are just not quite sure how to respond to a student’s comment, or how to help a student make sense of what they are trying to say. In this week’s Quick Tip, Debbie Miller offers up some ways of responding to children and helping them clarify their own thinking at the same time. These examples are from her recent book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action, K-5.

Let’s say a child says something in response to a statement or question and we’re not sure where they’re headed.

If we smile, nod encouragingly, and say things like the following, we’re letting children know we believe they have something significant to say and we’re going to do everything we can to help them find it:

■ Keep going.

■ What else?

■ Keep talking. I think you are onto something here.

■ Say more about that.

It takes time to help children find words for what they’re trying to convey. It can be  uncomfortable. But when kids understand we’re not going to ask them to do something unless we know they can do it, they most often accept our challenge.

Sometimes, when a child is having difficulty putting his thinking on display, we might say something like, “Is there anybody who can help Josh?” Lots of kids will want to help Josh, but will they really be able to? More than likely it’s an opportunity for them to share their own thinking, and Josh learns that if he hesitates to answer, his teacher and his classmates will come to his rescue. That’s no way to move a child forward. So don’t let Josh off the hook. Stick with him. Nod, smile, and say, “Keep talking, Josh.” And then wait. Let him know you know that thinking takes time. Let him know that you truly believe he has something thoughtful to say. When children know we believe in them, it’s the first step in learning to believe in themselves.

Let’s say a child actually has quite a bit to say, but we’re not really sure what she’s talking about.

In this instance, we try as best we can to make sense of what she has to say and make meaning for ourselves. We’re showing kids we really do want to understand their words and ideas when we say things like this:

■ So, are you saying . . . ?

■ Is this what you mean?

■ This is what I think I heard you say. Do I have it right?

We try our best to find that golden nugget—to find significance—in what they have to say, and offer it up for the child’s consideration. How do we know what to say after saying something like, “So, is this what you mean?” (Especially when we have no clue?) Take a deep breath, think about the child’s words, the focus of the discussion or conference, and say something that makes sense to you.

We don’t really know if this is what the child is thinking, but we’re having a go at it. It’s important that we frame our understanding in the form of a question. “Is this what you mean?” sends a much different message from, “This is what you mean.” If the child answers with a nod or a yes, I say, “Okay. Now you say it.” We’re giving the child the opportunity to put it in her own words—she owns the thinking now. Sometimes I’m asked, “So how do you know she was really thinking that? How do you know she’s not just saying that’s what she was thinking?”

I don’t. And I don’t think it matters. What does matter is that the child understands that her teacher is working hard to make sense of what she has to say. And if we do end up giving her an out? So be it. Sometimes we forget that when we dismiss a child’s thinking, we also dismiss the child. And conversely, when we embrace her thinking, we’re also embracing her. We cannot underestimate the power of our influence. Other times a child will say, “No, I’m not thinking that. I’m thinking this . . .”

Perfect. Either “Yes! I’m thinking that” or “No, I’m not thinking that, I’m thinking this . . .” helps children clarify their thinking. What we say and how we say it lets them know that it’s safe to put their thinking on display.

Sometimes children say things that seem so bizarre (to us) that we wonder if they have been listening at all.

Instead of asking them that question, or giving them that special look we reserve for occasions just like these, we could decide to not pass judgment. We’re being honest and we’re showing kids that even though we’ve never thought about it quite like that before, we’re willing to now when we say something like this:

■ Wow. I never thought about it like that before! But what if children say things just to get a reaction from everyone? In that case, children know that we’re open to listening to a variety of perspectives and ideas, and that we expect them to substantiate their thinking in thoughtful ways for themselves and others when we say something like this: “So help me out here. What’s the evidence in the text that leads you to draw this conclusion?” Or, “What in your experience makes you think about it in this way?”

Once students find out we’re serious, that we’re going to keep at it in order to find significance in what they have to say, they usually stop responding in less than thoughtful ways.

Sometimes we see that students need to broaden and expand their thinking and to value and make efforts to understand thinking that’s different from their own.

We’re helping children understand the importance of being open-minded, listening carefully, and learning from each other when we say things like this:

■ What might be another way of thinking about this?

■ Who has another point of view?

■ Now let’s look at this a different way. What if . . . ?

■ Turn and talk with a partner about your thinking.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  January 12th, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    These are great tips. My students always surprise me with their insights and comments, showing me a different angle to a discussion point.

  • 2. Joyce Marino  |  February 13th, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Sometimes we forget the things that are most important. Thanks for reminding me about this.

  • 3. Debbie Miller + Stenhouse&hellip  |  February 14th, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    […] Teacher Talk […]

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