Quick Tip Tuesday: Teacher Talk

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.

3 comments January 12th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Talking and Reading Aloud

This week’s Quick Tip comes from Talking, Writing & Thinking About Books: 101 Ready-to-Use Classroom Activities That Build Reading Comprehension by Jo Phenix. The set of activities in this downloadable and printable PDF focus on using oral reading to enhance students’ understanding and to generate ideas for their own writing.

Some of the activities include creating a radio advertisement, writing a song, giving a speech, and “chalk talk.” Download this chapter from Jo’s book right here!

Add comment September 22nd, 2009

Questions & Authors: Synergy, Socratic Circles, and ‘dog slappers’

“How do I grade Socractic Circles?” This is a question Matt Copeland receives reguarly from classroom teachers. His response: “Well, maybe we don’t grade them.” In his new article in our Quesitons & Author series, Matt, the author of Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School, talks about how he stirred his students away from participating in Socratic Circles just to get more points or better grades, and how he came across an unusual “grading” method.

Not long ago, I exchanged a few emails with a classroom teacher new to Socratic Circles. She was frustrated, both with the strategy and with her students for the lack of depth and quality in their classroom discussions. It’s a topic of conversation I’ve shared with many teachers over the years. And, in many cases, the frustration appears to stem from one concept. Grades.

So, inevitably, my email boiled down to a central question: How are you evaluating the quality of the students’ conversation? The response I received was well thought-out and very detailed in its approach: Students received a homework grade for completing the critical reading of the text before class and they also were rewarded points for the contributions they made to the conversation during class. Statements of agreement earned a point; summarizing what a previous student had said earned two points; posing a question or offering new ideas to the group earned three points; offering a particularly insightful idea or question could earn four or even more points. Bingo.

As gently as I could, I suggested that perhaps students were not engaging the conversation at the level she desired because, in their minds, Socratic Circles and their grades embodied a game: How many points can I rack up in my allotted time? I offered the idea that perhaps holding the conversation without any points attached might help to improve the quality of the discussion. That perhaps allowing the students’ ideas (rather than their grades) to be the central focus might encourage and empower them to engage more fully in the dialogue. It was worth a try.

Her reply came back quickly, “but if I don’t count up points, how do I grade this thing?”

My response was simple: maybe we don’t.

Part of our job responsibilities as classroom teachers is to monitor and document the growth and learning of our students. But, at times, within my own practice, I know I run amuck of the spirit of this responsibility and focus more upon the grades than I do the learning. All too often, in classrooms across this land, points and grades (and test scores) become the “bottom-line” thinking of the classroom.

But my goal in facilitating authentic, open classroom dialogue, I hope, aims a little higher. Through their conversation, I want to instill in my students a love of learning. A love of the collaborative discovery of meaning. A love of one of the bedrocks of our democratic society. I want to see them applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating information. I know their voices contain meaning; I know their voices contain truth. I want them to know it—and feel it—too.

To evaluate true dialogue and true learning in a classroom, we need a better measure than points or grades. We need something that, when added to the conversation, helps to synergize, not something that helps to fragment. If we seek to create that sense of synergy when students are using their whole minds, their whole range of experiences, their whole beings and intuitions, to discuss and construct meaning—to transcend our common core expectations—we need a measure more meaningful. Something more immediate. Something more hilarious.

When I was growing up, my dad always referred to those moments when someone flinched or was suddenly, physically startled as “a dog slapper.” He was notorious for leaping around corners, jumping out from behind bushes, etc. all in hopes of scaring someone half to death just so he could slap his own knee, loudly chuckle to himself, “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and then offer his own impression of a yelping dog suddenly awoken from a deep slumber. He’d crouch over on all fours, then spring back up and turn a few full-circles as though he was trying desperately to escape something behind him that we could not see. Barking and yelping the whole time, as though he was a hellhound possessed. And then, after a brief reprieve of silence, he’d almost die laughing. We were never quite sure at what, exactly, he was laughing—the situation, or us, or himself. But, boy, he sure enjoyed it.

My father’s “dog slappers” became one of those quirks of family lore that embarrassed the rest of us immensely (which probably only led to him doing it even more often), but it was also one of those things we came to miss when he was gone. Little did I know at the time, but “dog slappers”—evidently—are also hereditary.

A few years ago, in the middle of one of those synergistic Socratic Circles in my classroom, we experienced one of those eerie yet blissful silences that only occurs when the thoughts being shared have blown away the expectations of everyone in the room. I sat there, watching, numb with glee. My students sat there too, all leaning forward, eyes focused, minds concentrating on the depth and insight being collaboratively created.

And in that pregnant moment of silence, when the cognitive gears of students were kicking into realms we didn’t know existed and everyone in the room contemplated her next contribution, the silence of engaged concentration was shattered as the bell rang to announce the end of period. And, just at the moment that bell shrieked against the concrete wall, I swear half of the students’ rear ends must have lifted two or three inches off the floor. And without so much as an ounce of forethought, I slapped my knee, shouted… (you guessed it)… “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and launched into my own impersonation of a yelping dog—yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp—right there in front of an audience of 28 petrified 14-year-olds.

Despite all the commotion between classes in the hallway outside my room, despite all the good conversation and meaning we had created, despite the hungry stomachs that so often dictate learning at the end of the class period just before lunch, my students sat there—motionless, deathly silent, staring at me incredulously. I think some were taken aback by the startle they received from the bell. Others might have been aghast at the perceived suggestion of animal cruelty. Others yet were more deeply disturbed—first—by the yelping and—then—by the school-girl-like giggling coming from their middle-aged, male teacher.

And then, one by one, with these deep, sheepish grins, they each gathered their things and headed off to lunch without muttering so much as a single word to me.

Of course, when fourth hour came to class the next day, it was quite obvious that absolutely no work was going to take place and that the entire world could grind to a halt unless I stopped and explained what exactly a “dog slapper” was and the story behind it.

So, I did what all good storytellers and teachers do. I decided to roll with it. Completely embarrassed, I told the entire story—with, of course, my own impersonation of my dad doing his impression of a caught-off-guard hound. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

We all had a great laugh. Somewhere my father smiled. And it was one of my students who then asked, “But isn’t a ‘dog slapper’ at the end of a Socratic Circle a good thing? Doesn’t it mean we were all so focused and doing such a good job of listening and thinking and paying attention and collaborating that we weren’t even thinking about school or bells or anything else?”

And I answered absolutely.

To which another of my students—as only teenagers will do and because grades too often seem to mean everything—asked, “Does that mean we can get extra credit for every Socratic Circle that ends with a dog slapper?”

It never went that far, but the students decided to keep an on-going record of how many of them would flinch at interruptions (bells, intercom announcements, visitors, etc.) during our Socratic Circles. So they wrote “DSC” (dog slapper counter) in the corner of the chalkboard and would add tally marks for each student who so flinched during a discussion.

Of course, it took all of about a day before the other classes wanted to know what in the world DSC meant, and I had to launch into the story—and impersonation—for them as well. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

And from there, a new game was afoot: which class could rack up the most “dog slappers” in a given semester? Although certainly flawed in its own way, DSC became our default measure of those synergistic moments when we knew that both the dialogue and our learning were transcending all expectation. But, thankfully, our tallies never translated to points in the gradebook. Our cart never lurched before the horse.

While I never award points for our dialogue, I understand the motivations of those who do. Each of us must operate our classrooms in a way comfortable, familiar, and effective. In my practice, I certainly award students points for the critical reading of the text they do in preparation for our Socratic Circles and also in the follow-up writing assignments that occur after our discussion. And, as a way to build and reinforce foundational skills, perhaps there is purpose and meaningfulness in assigning points to dialogue for students struggling with creating quality conversation among their peers and/or in struggling to participate at even a minimalist’s level. But, in my mind, those points are only temporary scaffolding that should be removed at the earliest opportunity. In my mind, grades are just a sometimes-unfortunate necessity in the business of education.

Collectively, if we are doing our jobs during the dialogue and striving to reach those higher gears of cognitive synergy, I shouldn’t need to assign points for the conversation itself. The quality of our dialogue will be reflected in that follow-up writing assignment. In this way, our Socratic Circles become a type of collaborative brainstorming session, a transformational strategy (for students and for teachers) that rises above grades and the “bottom line” and embodies all that which education and learning should be. In an authentic literacy classroom—in any classroom—that synergy is important.

And so now, to this day, every time I present Socratic Circles and am asked, “How do you give grades for this thing?” you might see an ornery smirk on my face because part of me is just dying to answer, “That’s easy, you just count up the dog slappers!” But I know that nothing in life—or in the classroom—is ever that easy.

2 comments September 3rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Classroom rituals

In Becoming One Community, authors Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley provide guidance for teachers whose classrooms include children who are just learning English. This week’s Quick Tip comes from Chapter 3 of their book, where they discuss how small classroom rituals and remembering each student’s name and its proper pronounciation creates a classroom community where all learners will thrive.

Ralph Peterson writes: It is not unusual in today’s classrooms to find three, five, and sometimes more cultures represented. Bringing students together as a group and nurturing tolerance for their ways and beliefs while celebrating their differences challenges the talents of the most experienced teachers. Teachers who make communities with their students are cultural engineers of sorts. The primary goal at the beginning of a new year or term is to lead students to come together, form a group, and be there for one another. (Peterson 1992, p. 13)

Peterson’s suggestion to create rituals of belonging and understanding is important in all classrooms, but it’s especially important in classrooms with English language learners, for two reasons. First, if the teacher considers how children participate and talk with one another, community-building activities can level the playing field so that each member of the class can realize that he or she is a valued contributor. ELL students will realize this of themselves, and—just as important—the non-ELL students in the class will also realize that English language learners are capable participants. The second reason is a simple one: when students participate in meaningful activities, English language understanding and speaking ability will improve.

Shannon Blaney’s class started a morning ritual when a new student, who spoke little English, arrived from Somalia. A few students spoke Arabic, and they taught the class the greeting “Salam Alaikum” and the response “Alaikum Salam,” which is used by Muslims everywhere, regardless of native language. The class decided to collect various ways to say “Good morning” and “Hello.” Shannon took the opportunity to create a new ritual to begin their mornings. For the first few days, they practiced saying all the greetings together as a group before individual students greeted each other, and sometimes they pulled down the map to see which countries might use that greeting. Eventually this ritual only took a few minutes, but they continued to do it every day.

Once the morning announcements were over, the ritual would begin. The class gathered on the rug in a circle. Shannon sat in the circle, quietly reminding students to move here and there so that no one was sitting outside the circle. When it was quiet, she would ask softly, “Would someone like to start?” On this particular day, Betsy raised her hand. She turned to Mariana at her left, shook hands, and said, “Buenos días, Mariana.” “Buenos días, Betsy,” came the reply. Mariana then turned to the student at her left and said, “Good morning, Abdirizak.” “Good morning, Mariana,” Abdirizak replied, giggling a little, looking at the list of greetings and then at his teacher. Shannon reassured him with a smile. Then Abdirizak turned to José: “Bonjour, José.” “Good morning, Abdirizak.” José turned to Jackie; he hesitated, then turned around to whisper with Abdirizak. When he turned to Jackie again he said, “Salam Alaikum, Jackie.” Jackie paused and looked at her teacher. “Al—Al—” Abdirizak whispered the response to her and she softly repeated, “Alaikum Salam.”

Acts as simple as saying hello or as complex as altering daily plans to make time for someone to share who ordinarily doesn’t speak up are ways teachers help to create a comfortable environment. But simply making time for such acts isn’t enough; you must believe that these acts are important, because your attitude will affect how you respond to children. Shannon’s ritual with her students teaches them to respect and communicate with each other, not just with her. She has made a conscious decision to give everyone an opportunity to participate.

“Your Name Is Important”

Our names are an important part of our identity, so being conscientious about using your students’ names is one way to begin to know them. Teachers of English language learners have to be particularly careful to take the time to learn how to say a child’s name correctly. Many of us have stories of someone calling us a nickname (one we like or one we don’t like) instead of our real name or mispronouncing our name. Our school secretary, Susan Litwin, came to the United States from Vietnam as a high school student. She told us about when and why her name was changed from Chau, the name her family gave her, to Susan. In her American high school her ESOL teacher read the class list and then told the students, “You each get to pick an American name.” She had some suggestions for them to pick from; in some cases she assigned a name: “We’ll call you Susan.” Occasionally I share this story with students if, for example, I am taking the time to learn how to pronounce a new student’s name. I want everyone to feel pride in his or her name. I don’t want kids to be passive abouttheir names, saying, “Sure, that’s fine,” with a shrug of the shoulders, when their name is mispronounced. The truth is, some names are difficult to pronounce exactly the way it is said by a native speaker. Some can hear the differences better than others—whether the language is English or something else. For example, my sister’s name is Erin, and I have a cousin named Aaron. In northern Virginia, both names are pronounced similarly (air-in). But my cousin is from New Jersey. We pronounce the Aa in his name like the a in at. We try to emphasize the difference to my brother-in-law Mike, who is from New Orleans, by saying both names over and over, exaggerating different parts. “Listen: Erin [air-in]. Now listen: Aaaaaaaaron.”

Mike cannot hear the difference. He thinks we’re nuts. It’s important not to joke or take the easy way out with children’s names, especially if the student is new to the school or has a particularly difficult name to pronounce. Thinking about Jorge in the poem by Jane Medina, I say to the students, “Your name is important. I want to say it the way you say it” or I’ll ask, “How does your family say it at home?” This lets everyone else in the class, as well as the child, know that respect for others starts with respect for their names. And children appreciate such respect.

I am working in Samantha Finney’s third-grade class. A new student has arrived since my last rotation. Samantha introduces Mahek to me as the kids gather on the rug. Once everyone is settled I want to review all the kids’ names. They are used to this ritual—it’s a little game I play, since I work in so many classes. The children love to see if I’ve forgotten their names, so I always start with my tricks (telling them all to say their name the first time, even if they know I know, so no one feels forgotten; searching the classroom for names on the wall; asking for the first letter as a hint). When I get to Mahek, the new student from Pakistan, I pause (I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce her name). I smile and tentatively say, “Mehok?” The other kids giggle and say it correctly for me. Mahek looks at me with wide eyes and a slight smile. I want to hear her name again, but from Mahek herself. I ignore the others and ask her, “Please tell me your name again.” Nothing. Someone yells out, “It’s Mahek!” I respond, “I want to hear how she says it,” and turn again to Mahek. I point to my chest and say, “My name is Ms. Fay. Ms. Fay. What is your name?” She says her name. The other kids by now have settled down. Then I try to say it and point to her again, and she says, “Mahek.” I say it a few more times to make sure I have it; Mahek nods. The next time I see Mahek is at our weekly third-grade sing-along. Her class is at the front of the group. I smile and whisper, “Good morning, Ma—Mah—?” I’ve forgotten how to say her name again! She whispers back, “Mahek.” “Good morning, Mahek.” “Good morning.” I whisper, “Ms. Fay.” She smiles. No one else notices our interaction, but Mahek is grinning from ear to ear. It’s as if she’s thinking, “She knows me.”

When I first met Mahek, I consciously tried to ignore the other students who wanted to help and focused my attention on Mahek herself. She can, of course, say her own name, and this is often the first opportunity for a teacher and a new ELL student to have a genuine, meaningful interaction. It’s easy to let a child’s shyness dictate our actions. I should note here, however, that if a child seems upset and looks away, I would not persist. Mahek was engaged, though, making eye contact with me and smiling, and during our interaction she successfully communicated with me. Also, the other students saw that I expected Mahek to be a participant in class—a subtle but powerful message in that simple initial interaction.

Add comment May 19th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The basics of Socratic circles

In this week’s Quick Tip, Matt Copeland lays out the basics of Socratic circles. “True classroom discussion, true dialogue, should be an opportunity for students to share their own ideas, build knowledge based on prior information being applied to new situations, test out their own hypotheses and perspectives against those of their peers,” Matt writes in the second chapter of his book, Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. Socratic circles allow students to arrive at answers that have been constructed through personal experience, critical thought, rhetoric, and discourse.

In the simplest terms, Socratic circles are an in-class discussion that is focused upon a particular piece of text that students have spent time reading and analyzing. However, the nature and process of that discussion differs radically from the typical teacher-led, question-and-answer discussion.

In a Socratic circle, students work cooperatively to construct meaning from what they have read and avoid focusing on a “correct” interpretation of the text. Student understanding emerges as the discussion progresses and is always open to revision. Students base their construction of meaning upon the connections they can make to what they already know and the ideas and opinions that are shared within their group. This cooperative creation then stands as meaning over which students have almost complete ownership. The input and suggestions of the teacher are simply promptings to continue the process of discourse and the search for meaning.

It is important to note that Socratic circles are not a form of classroom debate. “Debate” suggests that students are competing with one another to convince an outsider of the validity of their line of thinking. A Socratic circle has students working collaboratively to construct a common vision of truth and understanding that serves all members of the group equally.

There is no concept of “winning an argument” in a Socratic circle; there is only the search for deeper and more thorough understanding. Similarly, there are strong differences between discussion as a general principle and Socratic dialogue. Discussion seeks to resolve an issue or solve a problem; it begins with a clear goal or outcome in mind such as, “Today we are going to discover the meaning of this poem.” If we think of the typical kinds of questions we ask in a classroom discussion, most have a single, correct answer, or at the very least a preferable answer the teacher is waiting to hear. In my own experience, classroom discussion usually meant one of two things: either wading through several answers until I heard the one I was looking for, or completely exhausting the potential answers students were willing to offer and then spoon-feeding the answer I had been hoping to hear.

Neither of these situations is consistent with Socratic dialogue, which often has no specific goal or outcome in mind. Socratic dialogue is an exploration, a quest for understanding, that has no definite beginning or end. It is an expedition into human experience and understanding that, as background, can then serve students as they approach life and the world they live in. Socratic dialogue is not about answers and solutions; it is about accepting multiple perspectives on a certain topic and reexamining our own experiences and opinions in light of those perspectives. Socratic circles offer a controlled, pedagogical strategy that can bring dialogue into our classrooms, a type of real-world, student-centered learning where the teacher acts only to keep the discussion moving forward, regardless of its direction. As students construct their dialogue and their meaning of the piece of text, they are activating prior knowledge, making connections, and synthesizing new schemata in their quest for understanding. It is the students—not the teacher—who guide and direct the focus of the conversation in a search for meaning, understanding, and knowledge.

The ritualistic structure of a Socratic circle is one that appears complex to participants at first, but ultimately that structure is what provides for the students’ growth and ownership of the conversation. By the end of the very first implementation, students have mastered the basic format of a Socratic circle. This allows them to focus on the content that is being discussed and the validity and power of the questions and thoughts being shared among participants. Such a structure also greatly reduces issues of classroom management, as each and every student is engaged in the conversation and filling a role for the group.

The basic procedure for a Socratic circle is as follows:
1. On the day before a Socratic circle, the teacher hands out a short passage of text.
2. That night at home, students spend time reading, analyzing, and taking notes on the text.
3. During class the next day, students are randomly divided into two concentric circles: an inner circle and an outer circle.
4. The students in the inner circle read the passage aloud and then engage in a discussion of the text for approximately ten minutes, while students in the outer circle silently observe the behavior and performance of the inner circle.
5. After this discussion of the text, the outer circle assesses the inner circle’s performance and gives ten minutes of feedback for the inner circle.
6. Students in the inner and outer circles now exchange roles and positions.
7. The new inner circle holds a ten-minute discussion and then receives ten minutes of feedback from the new outer circle.

There are many variations to the time limits of each aspect of Socratic circles, but maintaining the discussion-feedback-discussion-feedback pattern is essential. Once students have mastered the structure of the Socratic circle itself, modifications can be made according to content, focus, purpose, and so on.

Add comment April 7th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Find your storytelling voice

Storytelling is an important starting point for young learners as they begin their journey to becoming writers. In Talking, Drawing, Writing, Martha Horn and Mary Ellen Giacobbe say that it’s important for children to tell their stories before they put them down on paper. To model this storytelling, teachers need to be able to come up with their stories to tell in the classroom. Martha and Mary Ellen offer some strategies for teachers to find their own storytelling voice.

Teachers need to know that they have stories. When we tell teachers that we want them to use their own stories as models, it’s not uncommon for them to say, “But I don’t have stories” or “What would I tell?” or “That’s the most difficult part for me – coming up with a story to tell my students.” That usually reflects a perception of storytelling as a crafted performance – the kind that people sometimes do for a living. Yet once we model for the teachers how we tell one of our stories to children, they see the ordinariness of it and realize that not only do they have stories by they tell them to their students all the time.

As teachers become aware that they everyday stories they tell in passing are actually stories they could tell in this context, they begin to listen for them and collect them. Danita Kelley-Brewster has a strip of chart paper on the wall next to where she sits at the meeting area, at the top of which she has written “Stories to Tell…”

“I’ll be in the middle of a story” she explains, “and I think of something I want to tell them and I’ll say to the kids, ‘I just thought of another story I want to tell you sometime,’ and I jot it down right then.” Not only is she making it easier for herself to find her stories when she needs them, but she’s modeling for her students that writers are always seeing possible stories and that they usually have a place to collect those ideas.

…When choosing a story to tell students, we want one that is accessible to them. By that we mean one they will be able to relate to, one that matters to us, one that as they hear it, causes them to say, Hey I could do that. We sometimes ask ourselves questions such as these when thinking of stories to tell our students:

  • What is a recent happening that I’ve told others about?
  • What’s an ordinary, everyday happening from my childhood?
  • What personal stories do I tell my own children at bedtime?
  • What stories of my childhood do I keep coming back to, the ones that cause people to say, “Tell the one about…”?
  • What’s a moment, a seemingly simple happening, that I hold dear?
  • Who do I know and care about and what stories do I have about him or her?

It is by beginning with ordinary, everyday topics that we make it possible for all of our students to feel they can enter in.

Martha and Mary Ellen go on to talk about how to bring out student’s stories, beyond the ones that begin with “Once upon a time” or involve dragons and princesses.

Add comment December 23rd, 2008

Authors in Action: Jeff Anderson

During his visits to classrooms around the country, Jeff Anderson often notices a shift in tone when teachers talk about editing and grammar. “I’ve been in classrooms where teachers are doing a lot of great things with writer’s workshop and craft lessons and then they get to editing and they say, ‘Okay, guys. We have to prepare for the test and so now we’ve got to do some editing.’ It sounds like ‘take your castor oil,'” says Anderson.

And the typical editing activity isn’t much more inviting. In the classic daily oral language drill, a teacher puts up a sentence filled with errors and students shout out all the things that are wrong with it. Again, Anderson wonders about the messages that students are taking away: “The brain absorbs the patterns it sees all day; I don’t think it’s a good idea to look at bad patterns.” Instead of leading students on a scavenger hunt for errors, Anderson posts a wonderful mentor sentence and invites students to notice its characteristics and then to imitate its structure. When students immediately start shouting out errors they see in the mentor sentence, Anderson slows them down. “Wait, wait. This year I’m going to put up sentences that I like, that I love, and let’s see what we notice about them.”

Anderson demonstrated the activity in a recent webcast with a group of a dozen teachers and staff developers from around the country. You can listen in to the 45-minute webcast and see Jeff’s slides by clicking here.

Add comment May 22nd, 2008


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