Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson have spent years comparing notes on how to build effective classroom communities across the content areas.
Their research led to the development of Hands-Down Conversations, an innovative discourse structure in which all students’ ideas and voices take the lead while teachers focus on listening and facilitating. That structure is detailed in their book, Hands Down Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math, K-5.
In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Kassia and Christy share their thinking behind their book and the importance of investing time developing dialogue skills to deepen understanding of literacy and mathematics--eventually leading to a better understanding of ourselves and our world.
Find Kassia and Christy on Twitter at @kassiaowedekind & @TeacherThomp or check out their blog here.
Read the transcript
Kassia: So Christy and I met many years ago as classroom teachers at Bailey's Elementary School, which was a really big school. So we didn't know each other at first, but we met in this after school yoga class that was very intense, and which the teacher would tell us all about what were doing wrong with our lives while were doing yoga. That was a bonding experience for getting to know each other and later, we would, because we were masochists, I guess travel to West Virginia to go to a yoga retreat taught by the same teacher on the side of a mountain where we had to drive up and we weren't sure if Christy's car was going to make it all the way to the top of this mountain.
Kassia: When we got there, we opened the trunk and I hadn't brought my yoga mat with us for this whole weekend, a very intense yoga, where we'd be highly scrutinized. I definitely thought I might have a panic attack at that moment, but luckily, Christie was able to talk me into going into the building because she was like, I'm sure there's a whole closet full of yoga mats inside of that building, all you have to do is go in.
Kassia: Spoiler, there were no extra yoga mats and I had to do yoga on a towel for hours a day while someone analyzed my life, but all that to say we've knowing each other as friends and as colleagues for many years. So later, when we would go to a new school where I was the math coach and Christy was the literacy coach, we did lots of talking inside of work and outside of work about what we were noticing about children learning and talking and math and Christy was learning about how children talk about reading and writing, and comparing notes about what's the same about how children talk.
Kassia: Often talking about, hey, do you know that kid in that class. He was saying this and that and then I would say like, oh, yeah, he has some really interesting things to say about math learning, too. So we just started to compare notes, and we were both very interested in listening to children and talking to children, and how teachers might structure conversations so that students could talk to one another, and open up space for more student led conversations.
Kassia: So we were trying things out in our own content areas, and then became interested in seeing how we could watch and learn from each other and from the teachers we worked with and compare notes that way.
Christy: I think we also knew that we were trying to support the same teachers and that elementary school teachers teach everything and they don't specialize. So although we were specialized in our content areas, we wanted to do a lot of thinking about how we could be more supportive of teachers, rather than having them get two different sets of advice or support, but sort of think about where is the overlap between math and literacy and how can we blur the lines a little bit because the lines are much more blurry for students and even for teachers than for people like us who tend to special in our content areas.
Kassia: So we would talk about like, what does it sound like when you're reading a book and a student is supporting their ideas with reasoning. Then I would talk about like, oh, this is how it sounds when a student's doing that in math, and what's similar there and what's different and how can we harness the power of them learning how to do this talk in one content area to do that all day long and make connections for teachers and for students.
Nate: And this is where Hands Down, Speak Out originated, is that right? What is a hands-down conversation?
Christy: Yes, I think, a hands down conversation basically just means that the students are negotiating who's going to speak next, rather than the teacher deciding. So the hands up being a signal that a teacher is going to pick who speaks next and a hands down, meaning that the students are going to need to figure that out just like we would in a meeting as adults, or just like the kids would when they're playing, or when they're talking amongst mixed age groups in the neighborhood.
Christy: So, when we thought about how some in both math and literacy, we knew important people in our fields who were working on conversation, and as we compared notes, and Kassia taught me about some of the math work that was being done and I taught her about some of the literacy work that was being done, we saw that there again, was this overlap. In this idea that it's important to get students talking to each other and learning how to do that on their own and not depend on the teacher and in some cases, that's easier when school starts because they come ready to do that.
Christy: Then as school continues, we sometimes teach that out of them by constantly telling them to raise their hand and some of the older students needed even more support on learning that a little bit and relearning how to pass a conversation back and forth between themselves. So, yes, as we thought more and more about the power of that and the importance of supporting students with that work, we got really excited about the fact that teaching students in that format, that hands down conversation format, was a tie throughout the day, not only in math and literacy, but in talking about social subjects in talking about science and talking about history, and in solving problems together as a class.
Kassia: The reason that we call our book Hands Down, Speak Out is because, Christy and I are both very invested in our content areas and learning more about how children can grow as readers and writers and mathematicians, but what we and the brilliant teachers that we work with, want more than that is for students to learn how to use listening and talk to make their way through the world and advocate for themselves and for others and to learn how to listen deeply to each other and hear different perspectives and disagree in productive ways.
Kassia: I think that thinking about the state of our country now, it's pretty obvious to see how we really need children, and adults who can do that better, and who can advocate and speak out in strong ways, and we know that even the youngest students are already doing that in their own wonderful, natural language when they come to us. So we can build on the strengths that they bring to school with, and that that really transcends any content area. It's embedded in every content area, math and literacy are lenses for our world and talk transcends everything that we do, and listening.
Christy: I think also, we have worked in schools where we get to listen to students who speak in all different ways. They speak many, many different languages, including English that we have lots of students who are emerging bilinguals and fluent bilinguals and we have found great joy in listening and recording and reading re-listening to those conversations, and seeing how much, as Kassia said, the students are communicating with each other and how the students can learn to listen to each other without it being restated by the teacher, and put into official school language by the teacher.
Christy: Again, if you think about what our country is like, our country is kind of a beautiful place where there are lots of people who speak in lots of different ways and use different phrases and terms and dialects and languages. If we can teach students that they have the power to reach deep and listen and understand even when someone speaks about an idea that's different than yours, or speaks in a different way that's different than yours, then that gives me some hope for our future country.
Nate: It’s a tall order, really well said, both of you, thanks. I was wondering, Christy, are there voices traditionally left out of discussion and how can teachers better include them in talk?
Christy: Yes, we definitely find that there are always students who, both because or either because of their personality, or because of the messages that they've received from other teachers, from the world at large or from their parents that their ideas are more important. Or just because they have a different talk personality, that there are students who tend to dominate a conversation and there are students whose voices are not amplified by the others in the room at first.
Christy: However, we do think that by using some various tools to sort of reveal this to the students and to talk about it with the students as we have a hands down conversation, those power dynamics often are highlighted and brought to the surface, rather than just being a system that we all kind of ignore and accidentally reinforce Sometimes as teachers, especially as white teachers.
Christy: We are very aware that our choices are reflective of who we are. So when we get out of the way and listen, sometimes that helps to reduce our very big influence that teachers tend to have over classrooms, and we find that over time, as we discuss with the students how our conversations are going, and we talk about the different ways that students in our class speak different ways that the students can share, and we instill in the students a great curiosity about each other's ideas, that we can shift that power dynamic.
Christy: It's really every teacher that we've worked with, as far as I can recall, has been pretty excited as they see that shift and they start to see students who they always thought of before as maybe shy or uninterested or you can fill in the blank as to why they might have been quieter, and really excited to see that suddenly that student is feeling stronger and more confident, and finding their voice whether it's through writing, through talking in a partnership, talking in a small group or talking to the whole group, but is able to have that voice amplified, whereas it might have previously been more on the margins.
Kassia: I think that one of the first things that we suggest teachers doing as to do as they work their way into this practice of having hands down conversations is to focus on themselves as a listener. I know for me when I was getting started in this work, and still, that is something that I have to do very intentionally and consciously because that's who I am as a talker, or maybe that is how I thought about my role in the classroom, but the urge to get my voice in there is strong or to reword something a student has said or to call on someone who I think can move the conversation forward, those are practices that are pretty deeply ingrained in my teaching at least.
Kassia: So when I have permission in this talk structure to listen to my students and take a transcript of what they're saying, or we talk about a conversation map, which is a visual way of representing who has spoken in the conversation, then like Christy was saying, I can reflect on who's talking, in the whole group, who's talking in turn in talks, who is making gestures with their bodies that shows that they're engaging in the conversation and understanding.
Kassia: Then I can think about my role in that and what biases I have and how I might be privileging some learners or some ways of speaking more than others, and I can think about how I want to disrupt that through my teaching and make space for all different ways of talking about an idea and not just the ones that sound perhaps most like how I, as the teacher, or how schools, the kind of talk that schools usually value.
Nate: You used a really interesting phrase just now, “permission to listen”. What’s that about and what does it look like?
Kassia: I think, in enhanced down conversation conversations, we really think a lot about the teacher as listeners, and then also as students as listeners as well, and the way we're going to have robust conversation is by really building our listening muscles and that kids, even really young kids who just coming into school have ways of listening to each other.
Kassia: Sometimes we think they're not listening to each other because they're not making eye contact or because their bodies are turned or because they're messing with their shoelace or something like that. One thing that we do when we work with classes is we take a video of students talking or we take a transcript, and we look for all the evidence of listening we can find amongst students.
Kassia: So that might look like well they responded to an idea that a student put out or they said, like, no, I don't think that's right. It might not look like the way adults listen to each other or it might not look like the way that we've been taught that students should be looking at each other and need any eye to eye, sustained eye contact, but students are already listening in different ways when they come to us.
Kassia: All of them, even the ones that seem super distracted or uninterested or they're listening, and then we can build on that listening. One of the things that we do in our book is, we have some different, we call them micro lessons on listening, where we highlight different aspects of listening that we're perhaps already seeing students doing or approximating, and we teach them how they can build on that and practice that.
Kassia: So one of them might be like, how do you show your partner that you're interested in their ideas, or how does your partner want to be listened to? They have a conversation with their top partner about, do you want me to listen to your whole idea and then talk or are you okay if we bounce back and forth? It looks a little different at different grade levels, but just like, we could probably all use those lessons as adults. If you think about when we're in meetings, and there's often a dominator or there's often people kind of talking past each other and not really listening to each other.
Kassia: We can learn to grow as listeners as adults, and we can help children do that in the same way. Actually, I think I've become a better listener by watching how kids listen and listening to my own lessons that I'm teaching them and try to internalize that myself and try to become a better listener for children and for the teachers that I work with.
Christy: I was also thinking about how in school, we often with the idea of permission to listen, I feel like we are so stuffed full in our time constraints at school as teachers, and we have this constant pressure on our back of getting everything done, and pushing our way through the curriculum. I feel like when we are in Amidst the hands down conversation, we've given ourselves permission to stop trying to push forward and check things off of what we are teaching in that transmission model, and more in actually stopping to hear what's going on.
Christy: By positioning myself, even physically, a little bit outside of the student's circle, or by putting my head down and taking some notes, I've forced myself to do like Kassia's saying, kind of bite my tongue and give myself the space to actually hear what's going on. I know, even with my own children at home, they often choose times to talk to me, and this happens in the classroom all the time.
Christy: They're saying something amazing and beautiful, as I'm trying to get them to put their shoes on. It's not a great time for me to be a good listener. So the hands down conversation kind of gives me permission to take that moment and listen to really what they're saying.
Kassia: I think that it's important to note that listening involves trusting students, and that as we're developing as listeners, we're probably also developing in our trust of students as learners and that they can develop ideas and have worthy things to say and bring ideas to the table all on their own and through talking to each other. They don't always need us to be the person who is instructing or telling them what to think, or leading.
Kassia: That is something that I really had to grow into, that trust of students, but the more that I listened to students and the more conversations that I let students lead, the more I realized that many of the ideas that are important for our content, that are important for just learning how to engage with the world, can come from children, and that they will bring those ideas up and I can support them in that.
Kassia: I don't have zero facilitation role, but I don't always have to be the one leading the charge and waiting for them to bring up a certain answer or leading them to a certain answer. I can trust in their brilliance.
Nate: I appreciate the acknowledgement that responses aren't always verbal and there are multiple reasons for those nonverbal cues that students give.
Nate: So given that teachers are interested in exploring this in their classrooms, how can they use Hands Down Speak Out? You’ve included 28, I think, micro lessons. Are they split evenly between math and literacy, or do they cross the boundaries, as you mentioned earlier?
Christy: Okay. So our micro lessons are all centered around talk. So they are all across content and can be taught within any content area. Because our specialties are in math and literacy, we've provided examples that we might use to talk about in a math or literacy classroom, but they really could be used in any content area. Like we had mentioned at the beginning, one of the things that we've been most interested in is talk moves or dialogues, skills, whichever you might like to call it, that cross content barriers and that are useful in all types of conversation.
Christy: A lot of these if not all of them are things that we've observed children doing and are highlighting. So they're not necessarily things that we think about adults do proficiently and that we're going to them put into the heads of children, but instead, they're things that we see happening as the children are having a conversation and going, wow, did you notice what she just did there?
Christy: We've got to highlight that for the rest of the class to see and to name that for them and tell them, this is what she's doing and that is why this conversation developed, and that you guys came to this new idea. So really, the dialogue lessons are more just like what we call kind of pulling back the curtain on what goes on in conversation, to help conversations be productive, and to move our thinking forward.
Kassia: The micro lesson chapters, there are three of them and they have a certain, oh, four of them. Thank you. There's four of them. I'm going in for one. Throwing in just for you. There's four micro lesson chapters, and they build in a continuum. So there are things that we suggest that you might start with, or that seem to make sense as you're starting to have more student led conversations, and things that are more nuanced that you might do later on, but the lessons aren't designed to be followed in a completely linear way.
Kassia: At the beginning of each, of the lesson chapters, there's a chart called, if you notice, you might try and the if you notice columns describes some of the talk and listening behaviors that we might be noticing in our students and appreciating in our students. Then it gives a suggestion of one of the micro lessons that you might want to try with your students.
Kassia: So we expect that people will kind of browse those chapters and jump around in those chapters and choose different micro lessons. That can be like Christy said, taught across different continents or even in social conversations. Sometimes we have kids talk about social conversations that have a really low barrier to participation that are easily accessible to all because that's a really good space to practice the dialogue moves, where you don't have to know anything specific about the math or about a book.
Kassia: You can just talk about, whether indoor recess is better or outdoor recess is better, something like that, that all kids have access to. Then we also expect teachers will learn this format that we're offering for teaching a micro lesson and that they're going to notice things in their classroom and design lessons themselves, based on their own classroom and kind of learn this practice themselves outside of the 28 lessons that are in our book.
Kassia: We've learned a lot just by listening to the kids talk while they're playing inside the classroom or out at recess, or in the morning when they come in talking about like, Pokemon cards or talking about like, something that happened at home or in their neighborhood, when they think that we're not listening and they're just having a conversation that's totally for them. That is not to please a teacher and noticing how they really have, children have really robust ways of talking and communicating.
Kassia: All children, and that's really what we can build on. Like they're doing these things already that we shouldn't be thinking of children as like this blank slate and I'm today I'm going to teach you how to reason, and this is how you're going to say it, that we can build on what students already have.
Nate: I’m wondering what the dynamics of kids talking socially are compared to in-lesson. Do those dynamics shift? Are there students who talk a lot more socially but become very quiet during math?
Kassia: Right, children talk in different ways in different areas of their lives, which is one reason why we talk about how, like silence, for example, is really complex and that we shouldn't be thinking of a student as like the student is shy or the student is unengaged. That's rarely true of someone across all parts of their lives.
Kassia: So we can think of children's personalities or behaviors as talkers and listeners, as pretty complex that we all know a kid who's probably like talks a ton socially and is a leader in play and then maybe doesn't talk a lot when it comes to math class. We can analyze why might that be and get curious about students' silence or get curious about when they talk or who they talk to and try to find ways of bringing voices into the conversation, with the that that Christy and I really believe that we should not compel a student to talk, force a student to talk in a conversation.
Kassia: That we can make moves as teachers to encourage participation and to highlight different voices and ideas and to disrupt power inequities in our classroom
Christy: I think also, as soon as you introduce something like talking sticks or talking chips, well, those things are not out in the real world. Although we did read at one point a great article where there was a senator who had forced the people in her office to use a talking glass elephant and then someone threw it across the room out of anger and broke it. So I guess at times it is used in the real world in desperate times, but we would really love to see that perhaps these children will be the next leaders and that they won't need to throw talking sticks across the room.
Nate: We can always hope! I am totally looking that up later. I may have missed this, but in Hands Down Speak Out, you write about three types of conversation in literacy and math. What are they and how can a teacher plan to introduce them to her students?
Kassia: Okay. So in our book, we talk about three different types of conversation that we find to be really important in both the literacy and math content areas. One is building conversations around disagreement. One is around building theories, or sort of big ideas about something in literacy or in math. Then one is about engaging with the world.
Kassia: In that chapter, engaging with the world we're really thinking about how literacy and math are excellent tools for students to be empowered to speak out for what they believe in and to use those tools to do so. There are also tools that other people use to speak out about their messages, and that we can teach our students to critically analyze texts both, and texts, we mean broadly as in advertisements and books, and graphs and word problems, and that when we engage with, when we teach our students to engage with our world in this way, that the hands down conversation is a great tool to peel back and unpack these texts and see what is at the root of them.
Kassia: What was the author or the creator of the text trying to convey to us, what messages do they convey. Do we, do you agree with those messages, and if not, how would you speak back to that text and how would you rewrite it or recreate it and this leans heavily on all of the great work that has been done in the field of critical literacy, and the lesser known, but also existing field of critical numeracy in that chapter.
Kassia: In each of these chapters, we talk about a planning process for how we plan and think about these conversations ahead of time and we have a general process and then we take you through like, what does this look like when I'm planning for argumentation and math and what does this look like and sound like when I'm planning for argumentation and literacy and we kind of invite you into these different classrooms in elementary school and show kids engaged in this work in different content areas, and then across content areas.
Kassia: So in that last chapter that Christy was talking about engaging with the world, we were teaching kids to analyze the sneakers available on the Target website and looking at that through a math lens of, let's look at these shoes called girls shoes and let's look at these shoes called boys shoes. What do you notice and wonder, and how we analyze that through the lens of math. For example, they noticed that boys shoes were almost all gray and white and black and no other colors.
Kassia: Then Christy was building on, Christy and the classroom teacher were building on those conversations through a literacy lens and thinking about the messages that ads sent to us and thinking about how we can talk back to the messages that we receive from various texts in the world. We also have a planning process for that. So I think we want teachers to feel like this book is accessible and the planning processes help teachers think about that and how they might work together to plan some of these conversations for their classroom. Then also have some examples so they can feel it and hear it and see it inside of real classrooms, across the elementary school grades.
Christy: We also think a little bit about how each of those conversations both are planned a little differently, but then are also facilitated a little differently. So if we're really focused on trying to help students, be comfortable with different ideas, and explain the reasoning and get engaged in an argument, essentially, or a debate, then the kinds of things that we chime in and say as a teacher, are going to look and sound a little different than if we are working to help students put together a lot of different pieces of the puzzle and build towards a bigger idea or a bigger theory than we might be using some different facilitation moves, or choosing some different micro lessons to highlight during those kinds of conversations and that kind of work.
Kassia: Sometimes these ideas sound really big and scary. Like when Christy and I were even writing about the theory chapter, we knew that kids were building big ideas and were thinking about, when is something always true or sometimes true, or never true, but we even got into the weeds of it ourselves. At one point, we're having a crisis of like, do we even know what a theory is? Can we even define that ourselves? Then we went back to listening to kids and the way they developed talk, and we saw that kids are developing ideas about how the world works all the time.
Kassia: We talked about how preschoolers when they see mushrooms, for example, after a rain, they might say something like, oh, so mushrooms come from the rain. So that's like a partly true or there's some truth involved in that, but there's also things that you might say like that's inaccurate. Kids are developing these theories and trying out what might be true in their natural conversations and we can help them do that in math and literacy too, in really accessible ways.
Kassia: I think that's what we try to accomplish with our planning processes that this is something that doesn't have to be arduous, that can be playful and fun and doesn't have to be arduous for the teacher to play on. We tried to make, we know teachers are busy and have lots to plan and we tried to make our planning process accessible and enjoyable for teachers and for kids.
Nate: Of course, school is starting very soon, and many students will be online for some or all of their class time. What did you learn about moving a hands down conversation from face to face to a distance learning model?
Christy: So as we moved to distance learning in the spring, we at least had the fortune of having spent the good portion of that year with our students before we did transition. So some of the classes that I was working with had already many experiences and hands down conversations both in that grade and in the year before, as well as in small group work, both in math and in literacy.
Christy: So as we moved to distance learning and started to experiment with the different platforms and understand how this was all going to work, we quickly learned that having all of the students microphones off at the same time doesn't work because of background noise in people's houses. You really can't hold on to what someone is saying when there's more than about four or five different microphones on at a time.
Christy: So, the good news is, is that you still can do this work in small groups. So that is what we tried and what we experimented with in the spring, and that's what we're looking towards in the fall as well. The students who had already had in class experience with this made the transition quite easily actually, surprisingly well, and were able to say, oh, this is just like what we did. This is like a hands down conversation right, just with a computer.
Christy: They understood that they didn't need to press the hand button and that they didn't need to put their hand up pretty quickly, and were able to use some of the same moves, although we might have to do some reteaching and helping them understand that that translates into this format. When we're looking towards the fall and thinking about starting to build a community with learners, perhaps all online or partially, virtually, or if we're in school, and we're distanced.
Christy: I think the big takeaway for both of us during this time has been that no matter what format we're in, and perhaps even more because of this format that we're in, that student to student talk remains kind of a non negotiable for us, and something that we need to be creative about and push through thinking, how we can continue to highlight that even when we're in a less than desirable format, and we're not going to gather in a circle on the carpet.
Christy: So whether that means leaning on some tech tools for older students, that include writing back and forth to each other, or with younger students and older as well, forming turn and talk trios or pairs or small groups of five that the teacher can listen into at times and can let talk independently at times over the computer. That still has the same power as it did in the classroom, and perhaps even more because we are all a little bit starved for human connection.
Christy: That is what really has engaged and motivated kids, as opposed to me speaking at them in whole group lesson. When they're at home, they have even more reason to disengage from being spoken at. So I'm not saying that we should not have any home group lessons or that we should not have any moments where we explicitly teach something. When done in the service of something that they're very engaged in, then a student can absolutely be interested in that content. It has to be balanced out with opportunities for student to student talk, and opportunities for us as teachers to still keep listening, whether it's over the phone, over a headset, or over a screen.
Kassia: I think as the parent of a first grader this year, something I noticed about what my own daughter was looking for that I think lots of lots of teachers are noticing is that she really craved the relationships that she was missing at school and the community. One of the best ways that we know of fostering that is letting kids talk to each other and making space for conversations that aren't content focused conversations.
Kassia: I watched Christy facilitate a conversation based on a book about asking kids, would you rather be swallowed by a fish or sat on by a rhinoceros. They had this great robust conversation all between them about like debating the merits of, well, there aren't a lot of huge fish. So that fish could probably just put its mouth on you, but not sit on you like a rhinoceros and giving tons of reasoning and building off of each other's ideas and disagreeing.
Kassia: All the things that we want them to be doing and the content areas. They were connecting to each other and enjoying each other's company through a social conversation and also building their dialogue skills. I think that lots of teachers are learning that what they want more than anything else for their online time is building community and maintaining community and relationships.
Christy: We've also, it's been really fun to watch, both of our daughters who are in first grade have maintained sort of an online book partnership with each other throughout this. They obviously had a relationship before this started. So they didn't need to form that online, but we did do a very little bit of teaching into that talk at the beginning, but because they are our own daughters, they're pretty resistant to our instruction.
Christy: So we both had to quickly back out of that, and it's been really cool to see that their ability to sustain a talk about the book that they're reading has lengthened and increase significantly over time, just by having that relationship and that for sure, at times the talk also dissolves into things like bathroom humor, but when we don't quickly come in and censor that, sometimes it's interesting because it then flows right back into the book.
Christy: I noticed that my daughter, will come away definitely with a greater understanding than when she went in, without any interjections even from the two of us. So, again, that's just to say that, although this is a very less than ideal situation, it has helped us understand even more our priorities and the need for this and that this can be done, albeit sometimes clunkily through virtual platforms.