In this month’s Something to Talk About blog, JoEllen McCarthy, author of Layers of Learning, shares how talking about books can help build powerful classroom communities.
In many ways the pandemic allowed us to rediscover the value of talk. Be it an exchange over the computer, in a break out room, or from behind a mask, we were connected through our conversations more than ever. And now that we are back in schools in many places, (albeit with some emotional scars), too often there has been a rush to get back to other “instructional goals.” However, we can’t lose sight of the power of talking about and beyond texts. Here, I offer a few simple suggestions. Read aloud. Make the space and time for kids to talk together. Let the kids and the books do the work.
Talking About & Beyond Texts
Learners need to be free to share their ideas, express their thoughts and use talk as a tool to connect and capture their interpretations of a wide variety of texts. Using rich, engaging literature provides multiple opportunities to reflect and respond to a variety of perspectives that come from thinking together about and beyond texts. With the right conditions and encouragement, student talk around texts can allow for authentic, meaningful, and necessary interactions. When we recognize students’ points of view as “windows into their reasoning” (Brooks & Brooks), their feelings can be validated, shared, and explored with new insights. And talking about those feelings can lead to mutual respect and deeper understanding.
Reading, thinking, and talking together strengthens our connections to texts, yes, but more importantly, to each other and to our community of learners. Talk promotes social bonding and relationships, thus growing our students’ minds and hearts at the same time. Our connections to texts, characters, and events provide kids of all ages an opportunity to learn from relatable, three-dimensional characters and can lead to an open exchange of ideas. When our read alouds go hand in hand with heartprint books (those books that leave a lasting imprint on one’s mind and heart) and student-led conversations, this empowers readers to share more of themselves, fostering communication and connection. As educators, we get to lean in, listen, and learn from our students.
I often say that books are my coteachers, but I also understand that no book is complete without the experiences the reader brings to its pages. Which is why, like everything else responsive educators do, we might begin by inviting kids to consider why talk matters.
In a recent conversation with students doing this work in a fifth-grade classroom, I asked them to share their thinking around why talk matters. Here are some of their thoughts, in the chart below.
As we continue to engage in this work, we may consider the ways we invite our students to share their thoughts. Are we using open-ended questions? Are students encouraged to share what they think and why? Do students understand the value of listening and learning from one another? Do they restate, repeat, rephrase, or revise to add on to their own or other’s thoughts? Our discussion possibilities can grow as we encourage students to reflect together, consider multiple perspectives, and share their connections, cares, and concerns stirred by a read aloud with questions such as:
- What are you thinking about?
- What are you wondering?
- What are you feeling?
- How would you feel? What would you do?
- Can you say more about that?
- What makes you say that?
- What does this text make you think about in life?
- I’d love to hear more about your thinking.
To help facilitate and extend conversations, encourage kids to say more and elaborate on their ideas using evidence from texts, ideas, and experiences. Instead of marking the text, try letting kids mark the talk.
🎼Let's Give Them Something to Talk About...🎼
If you know me and you know my work, you probably know that I can’t resist sharing titles. And I also believe it’s not about that one book, but instead it’s about books that foster kid-centered inclusive conversations about community, agency, respect, and empowerment and the range of ways to interpret those aspects in texts and in life. In this, it’s essential that we stay mindful of the texts we select and reflect on the messages they share. Do they demonstrate an array of voices and characters through uplifting representation? Do they invite discussion around issues of equity, inclusion, as well as privilege and power?
So, the following are just a few examples of the kinds of texts that I’ve been sharing (lately) that have led to powerful talk. And I hope you’ll find some inspiration as you search for books that lift the level of the conversations you and your learning communities are having about and beyond books.
Consider Books That:
- Inspire kids to find and consider their greatness (Bravo Anjali, Beautifully Me, What I Am)
- Affirm aspects of our identities and center kids as teachers too (Teach Us Your Name, Becoming Vanessa)
- Recognize the beauty of loving families (Plenty of Hugs, Families Can)
- Explore multiple perspectives and challenge kids to “think beyond a first impression.” (Milo Imagines the World, A House for Every Bird)
- Demonstrate messages of acceptance (Best Day Ever)
- Launch reflections on our literacy and learning journeys (A Walk in the Words, My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World)
- Illuminate the power of books and reading (I’ll Build You a Bookcase)
- Examine complex situations, causes, and events (Lunch Every Day)
Using an invitational approach to thinking about and beyond the texts helps lift the level of our discussions. Every idea and student insight, grows book after book, with each story supporting students as they build thoughts together through talk. I'm hopeful that as we continue to share stories while inviting talk that centers kids and care, we can step back more and more, letting student voices guide the conversation and the learning.
JoEllen explores these ideas further in her book Layers of Learning. In addition to sharing pedagogy and practices about and beyond read alouds, Layers of Learning includes the vision and visible voice of student conversations with over 180 books as springboards to connect literacy and caring conversations. Follow her journey on social media @JoEllenMcCarthy.
About the author
JoEllen McCarthy, an educator for 20+ years, is a lifelong learner and literacy specialist who spends her days teaching and learning alongside students, teachers and administrators to support literacy instruction, as well as student-centered collaborative coaching cycles. She is passionate about the heart work of teaching and works to emphasize reading and writing connections, character education, responsive classrooms, and culturally responsive teaching, while championing the power of read alouds and choice to affect independent readers, writers and thinkers.