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Rethinking Participation in Classroom Conversations (Something to Talk About)

Posted by admin on Oct 7, 2021 8:46:02 AM


About the Episode

Welcome to Something To Talk About, a podcast and blog series about all things classroom discourse!

In each episode of the Something to Talk About mini podcast we ask just one juicy question about classroom discourse to a group of educators.

In Episode 3, Stenhouse editor and author, Kassia Wedekind asks:

How might we rethink our ideas about

participation in classroom conversations?

You’ll hear from literacy coach Christy Thompson, first-grade teacher Lauren Carr, high school teacher Matthew Kay, and third-grade teacher Jennifer Orr.

And we’d love to hear from you! Let us know how you’re rethinking participation in classroom conversations. Leave a comment here on the blog, or connect with us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Meet the Educators in this Episode

Thompson_Christy 2019Christy Thompson is a literacy coach in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. She has spent her teaching and coaching career particularly focused on listening to and learning from the talk of our youngest students. Christy is the co-author of Hands Down Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math and tweets at @teacherthomp.



Lauren CarrLauren Carr is a first-grade grade teacher in Los Angeles, CA. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Masters in Education. She is passionate about social justice and understanding students’ mathematical thinking. Follow Lauren on Twitter at @__Laurencarr.


MatthewKay2018_160x167Matthew R. Kay is a proud product of Philadelphia’s public schools and a founding teacher at Science Leadership Academy (SLA). He is a graduate of West Chester University and holds a Masters in Educational Leadership with a Principals’ Certificate from California University of Pennsylvania. Matthew is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom and tweets at @mattrkay.


Orr photo 2-1Jennifer Orr has spent more than twenty years teaching and learning with elementary students from kindergarten through fifth grade. She currently teaches third graders at Fort Belvoir Upper School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She tweets @jenorr and blogs at



Resources Mentioned in Episode 3

Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Math and Literacy

Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom

Read the transcript

Kassia Wedekind: Welcome back to Something to Talk About, a podcast and blog series from Stenhouse Publishers. I'm Kassia Wedekind, and I'm an editor and author here at Stenhouse and a math coach. Here on the Something to Talk About mini-podcast, we asked just one juicy question about classroom discourse, and here are the unique responses and perspectives of several educators. And in today's episode, we're talking about rethinking what it means to participate in classroom conversation.

Kassia Wedekind: A few years ago, I took a video of myself facilitating a fraction number talk in a fourth grade classroom. In the moment, I thought it went pretty well. Kids shared strategies, they made connections between each other's ideas, and it seemed like their mathematical thinking was nudged forward. But later when I watched the video, I was unpleasantly surprised. What I thought had been a robust conversation was really just a conversation between a handful of the students. During the conversation, I was totally focused on the students who had been talking, but now watching the video, I found myself watching the quiet students. What were they thinking? Were they listening? Did they feel included? And what should I have done as the teacher?

Kassia Wedekind: I'll admit, I did not watch that video again for a while, but it got me thinking about participation and left me with more questions than answers. Should our goal be for all students to participate in whole class conversations? Should I wait for students to join in on their own or call on them? And what might we be missing by just paying attention to who talks in whole class conversations. To help us think more about participation in classroom conversations, let's hear from some true experts, teachers living these questions on a daily basis. Christy Thompson, a literacy coach in Fairfax County, Virginia, and the coauthor of Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math, joins us first.

Christy Thompson: This is always such a big deal for us as teachers. We worry so much about quieter students and we worry about equality of participation and we often make assumptions about their quietness. Like you and I have talked about a lot how, oh, I guess if they're quiet, they must not be paying attention or they don't understand. And so, I think a lot of us want to quickly try to manage the situation and try to put a lot of structures into place really quickly. Like, okay, everyone gets three talking chips and they have to use all three in the conversation so everybody talks to the exact equal amount. And I think something you and I have talked a lot about is how the most important thing that we can do first is to hit pause on that knee-jerk reaction to try to come in and fix things with a lot of mandates and rules and structures. And instead of jumping to all these conclusions, by getting curious about why this student might be quiet.

Christy Thompson: And try to collect some actual data on who's doing the talking and when, so that we can start to take a look at what the trends really are, instead of just going on our gut and then reflecting on, what am I doing to support or not support those students? So, what other methods am I providing for them to contribute to the conversation? Am I really asking students to only talk in the whole group or do I have opportunities for partner talk and small group talk so that students can rehearse their ideas in a low-risk format? And am I providing students chances to draw or write about their ideas to organize themselves? Do I give enough wait time? All of those self reflections I think are really important before we start having rules and structures.

Christy Thompson: Because really, my goal is for the class community to get involved with this and to reflect on the conversational patterns and figure it out together. And if I just come in with all of those structures and I've taken away that power from the students. And I've demonstrated I haven't trusted them, I haven't given them any responsibility, and then we're not going to grow as a talk community because I haven't given them the chance to figure it out themselves. So, I want a student who ends up being more of a dominant talker to recognize that they have an important role too, of bringing others into the conversation and making space. And then when we start to all take on that responsibility, then we really see the community grow.

Kassia Wedekind: Lauren Carr, a first grade teacher in Los Angeles shares her thoughts on participation in classroom conversation and how reflecting on herself as a student has helped her understand students who may appear quieter.

Lauren Carr: I think just because students, they seem quieter, doesn't necessarily mean that they're not engaged or not participating. And I think that was something that I had to check myself on, I guess, because if they're sitting there quiet, then they're just doing something else. They're not paying attention, they're not contributing, but they might be... I feel like I keep coming back to seeing myself, that little Lauren in the classrooms, quiet as I'll be it, would not say anything. But I was processing and thinking and thinking about what I wanted to say next and then by that time, the question was gone.

Lauren Carr: And so, I think by getting to know your students and knowing how they like to participate and giving them multiple ways, different ways to participate. Even if they're quiet, they might do a hand signal that shows that they like something or they thought about it differently, or giving them opportunities to turn and talk with someone that they enjoy talking to. I find that when students like to talk to each other, they're going to talk to each other. And so, then I think they'll build the confidence in small groups to gradually share in the whole group.

Kassia Wedekind: Matthew Kay is a high school teacher in Philadelphia and the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. He reminds us of the important idea that talking out loud in a whole group conversation is just one kind of participation, but sometimes remains the main kind of participation that is valued.

Matthew Kay: We should really, I think, think about what participation means in any context. One little one-liners that I give during presentations is often like, we call things participation points when we actually mean speaking points and we're actually speaking, whereas there are ways for kids to participate without actually speaking in class. And I think, and some of my more introverted kids have pointed that out. It's like, "Well, I'm engaged, I'm listening and I'm responding." It's related to the answer I just gave, I am engaged enough and in every other way, besides speaking. I'm citing my classmates in my essays, I'm doing all these other things. I am here. I'm very much here. I'm contributing in small group, even. I'm contributing in one-on-one. When we do turn and talks, I'm all about it.

Matthew Kay: And sometimes our discussion and I do this too, our discussion grade is just, did you speak in whole class? That's what discussion points mean. And I think, it's not like we're bad people for that, but that's disingenuous. That's not what discussion... That's not what participation means. So, on one hand, it's making sure that there are ways for kids like that to participate in ways that are not whole class.

Kassia Wedekind: And finally, Jennifer Orr, a third grade in Fairfax County, Virginia, talks to us a little about when to nudge participation and how the community can do that in ways that are productive and caring.

Jennifer Orr: At first, I think I let it be. I think I really want to be sure that I'm not forcing kids into things that are uncomfortable for them. As you said, not every kid is going to talk in every setting and that's totally okay. There's a lot they gained by listening and I have to remind myself of that. One of my goals as a teacher always is to have kids grow. And if I don't push kids in all ways, then they don't tend to grow. And so, those quiet kids, at some point, I'm going to push. And maybe that looks like a small group of kids who frequently don't talk and I'm going to put them all together where they're going to have to do some talking, because there's no one else to do it for them.

Jennifer Orr: So, I definitely don't want to just let it be, but I also want to be sure that I'm not doing it in a way that really makes a kid uncomfortable. But then also that idea of equity of talk and how do we... It shouldn't just be on the teacher to make sure kids are all getting the chance to talk. So, thinking about helping kids analyze for themselves, who's talking, and how much they're talking or how little they're talking, and can those kids who talk a lot invite in their classmates and show them that they value what they have to say? Which I don't think is obvious when they don't stop talking enough for kids to speak, the recognition that yes, they have something to say that I want to hear. And so to say, "Maria, what are you thinking? Would you like to share your ideas?"

Jennifer Orr: And knowing that they can say no, that it's perfectly reasonable to say, "No, I don't have anything to share right now," but also that sense of it really is important that we hear everyone's voices. And when that comes from your peers, I think it's more meaningful than when it only comes from the teacher.

Kassia Wedekind: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that's a really good point that you bring up that people are different talkers in different contexts, too. That sometimes, because we see kids in a certain context, we think that's how they always are. But if you change the context, often people talk and listen differently.

Jennifer Orr: Or even change the topic. While often have we seen those elementary kids that are really quiet and then suddenly we're talking about Minecraft or we're talking about collecting rocks or whatever it is their passion is that suddenly they have so much to say.

Kassia Wedekind: The educators in today's episode, shared strategies for helping us balance voices in a conversation, but they also shared how to broaden our views on what it means to participate in a conversation. And thinking back to the number talk video I talked about at the beginning of the episode, I'm thinking about how I could have planned more intentionally for multiple kinds of participation. Opportunities to talk in small groups, the chance to write and draw about their thinking during or after a conversation, teaching students to invite others in, or just the understanding that being quiet in a conversation doesn't necessarily mean you're not thinking or not engaged. So, we're wondering, how are you rethinking participation in your classroom conversations? We'd love to hear from you on our Stenhouse blog, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And we'll see you back here in a couple of weeks for another mini podcast episode of Something to Talk About.

Topics: Something to Talk About