Welcome back 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 5, we’re thinking about issues of power
in classroom conversations and beyond.
You’ll hear from math education professor Elham Kazemi, first-grade teacher, Lauren Carr, high school teacher Matthew Kay, kindergarten teacher Dawnavyn James and literacy instructional coach, Caroline Sweet.
And we’d love to hear from you! Let us know how you’re thinking about issues of power in classroom conversations and beyond. Leave a comment here on the blog, or connect with us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
Meet the Educators in this Episode
Elham Kazemi is the co-author of Intentional Talk and the co-editor of Choral Counting and Counting Collections. She is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Washington. Elham works alongside teachers to create thriving mathematical classrooms centered on children’s mathematical thinking. She is deeply committed to building university-school partnerships that tackle social and academic inequities and create strong professional learning communities for teachers to learn from and with their students. Elham tweets @ekazemi.
Books & Blog Posts By Our By Our Episode 5 Guests
Read the transcript
Kassia: 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 ask just one juicy question about classroom discourse and hear the unique responses and perspectives of several educators. And in today's episode, we're talking with educators about power in classroom conversations and beyond. We're reflecting on who holds power in classroom conversations, what that looks like and how we can disrupt inequities we notice. And we're thinking about how we can make our classroom conversations and communities, places where students feel like their voices are included and important. Elham Kazemi, a math education professor and co-author of Intentional Talk begins our conversation.
Elham Kazemi: I mean, what an awesome responsibility. I think teachers have to develop trust with students where you can potentially have insight into what their experiences are because so much of children's lives with one another can be hidden from the teacher because of all the informal interactions they have with one another, that then affects who shows up when you're sitting on the rug. So, I think that really matters for you to even be attuned to how power might be playing out among your own students, and then between you and your students.
Kassia: Lauren Carr, a first grade teacher in Los Angeles thinks about the power dynamic between teachers and students and how that impacts classroom conversations.
Lauren Carr: Usually in classroom conversation, it feels in the beginning like, I have most of the kind of power and the kids, well, the kids think that I have all of the power. And so they're always looking at me to see what's next, looking to me to say and ask the questions. And so I want to kind of shift that power to them and say that you all have the power to drive these conversations, to listen to each other. And I want to listen to students, to y'all. I tell them I want to listen to y'all. And so I think by me slowly kind of stepping away from the conversations, and modeling how to have productive conversations. I think that shifts the power and giving students opportunities to just, to share what they know and share what they enjoy talking about, and giving them ways to connect to whatever anybody's saying, because I think there's a lot of power and like content knowledge.
Lauren Carr: And so if you know a lot about something, you might share a lot about something. And then when you're in that conversation, if you don't know a lot about it, you're like, "I'm not going to say anything." And so I want the kids to know that they can find some kind of connection to what someone says and to validate that connection and give them an opportunity to contribute. Even if it's a thumbs up, a hand signal, or to say, like this reminded me of something. And so they really have to listen to each other to hear those little things in that, in those conversations.
Kassia: Mm-hmm (affirmative) What you were saying about how students look to you to ask all the questions at the beginning. And I was thinking, yeah, I don't think at least, especially in elementary school, I ever thought, like I could ask a question to my peers, right? That's the teacher's job. So that's even, even young kids that haven't been in school that long, like already have that expectations. So, for a teacher to be interested in their questions seems powerful. Or just to open the space for them to ask each other questions.
Lauren Carr: Yes. I've already started to see it like this year when the students are asking, one asking themselves questions when I'm about to ask a question, I heard this, we were sharing a accounting collection and then a student walked up to looked at it and I hadn't said anything. And he was like, "What do I notice?" I was like, "Oh, wow." And then another time a student shared a strategy and there was a little downtime. And then a kid asked, "How did you, why did you do it like that?" just a little question. I was like, "Yay. I love how y'all are asking each other questions." So they were, it's starting, it's starting to happen. And I know how much they're going to grow, and I'm excited about it.
Kassia: Matthew Kay a high school teacher in Philadelphia and the author of Not Light, But Fire considers ways that both teachers and students can be intentional with whose voices and experiences are centered in conversations.
Matthew Kay: Well, I think that's partly connected to what I just was speaking about around centering is that like... and part of my, part of the bit that I've added to the presentations is I kind of attack it two different ways. The first way is like speaking to you as a teacher, how do we make sure which certain kids voices get centered in conversation? Like if you're an immigrant kid that, and we're discussing immigration that you feel like you have a crack at the microphone, you get to speak. Right. And how do we, if you're a woman and we're talking is this beyond race, if you're a woman, if you're a girl and we're discussing issues of gender that impact women specifically in this passage, that like, you feel like you have a shot to open your mouth.
Matthew Kay: That don't mean everybody else can't speak. It just mean that you feel like you can. And I think that's... And so some of the stuff I tell teachers is like, if you have a relationship with the kid, that's good, like really sharp, then you can like do a little bit of the stuff, like tell them before class, tell them a few days before, kind of like do a little bit of light co-planning, do a little, give them some roles and that kind of stuff if you have that relationship. But if you don't, the least we can do is-
Matthew Kay: Just making sure that we sit with their comments differently than we sit with everybody else's if that makes sense, like, you're speaking about gender-
Kassia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Kay: About a passage where a girl where a female character goes through something, right? Whatever, something sensitive, right as happens, and a girl raised their hand, the way you respond to their statement might be different than when a boy raised their hand, like you still calling the boy, you still give them a chance to speak all that kind of stuff, but a girl raised their hand. You might, reprompt off what they say.
Matthew Kay: You might build off what they say, or you might especially shut your mouth for about five, six seconds after they speak, really chew on what they had to say. You know, it's like, wait time, you provide wait time after asking question, after certain, after kids from certain communities speak, depending on what it is, give a little bit of wait time to like sit with, whereas with someone else, you might not do that. Right, which is more subtle. But as it's something that I really wish I had addressed in the book. Does that really make sure the power dynamic in the room? It's like this kid knows something about what, what we're talking about. This kid is pontificating. Like this kid knows, this kid has lived the experience. This kid just has opinions. Those are two different things. And one is worth more in this moment.
Matthew Kay: And I think that's on the teacher end and on the kid end, it's helping them through a junior version of that. Right? If you're a boy, like, just keep the same example where we're discussing a past, you're a boy, you know there's two minutes left in class. You raise your hand, she raised her hand. Maybe it's one of those moments we're like, let her speak and not get in your feelings about it. Not be like, not feel offended, not feel, but just like, yo we're discussing immigration. He's an immigrant. Let me make sure they get a chance to speak. Like, let me make sure that like own my own lack of expertise and that's not weakness.
Matthew Kay: Like I have opinions I still get to share. Right. But make sure that maybe even on higher levels, instead of sharing my opinion, maybe if I have a question, like if you really have good conversations around centering and some of these kids who voices aren't being centered, like don't need to be centered, can actually be trained to ask questions of their classmates. Like, what do you think about this? Like in a respectful way, not in a like tokenish kind of way. Right. Which is a whole other thing, but more kind of like, it's not my lived experience, you know what I mean? And just owning. And if they have built the relationship, then having a gentle way without tokenizing people to be like I don't know much about this. Even saying, I don't know much about this as a preface is important for kids who don't know much about this.
Kassia: Dawnavyn James, a kindergarten teacher in Missouri shares one way that she is orienting students to each other's ideas and positioning them as powerful contributors to the classroom.
Dawnavyn James: During math, I've been doing these mathematicians of the day and I recently started putting one of them up there. And so I put a friend who doesn't really talk much up there and her face just lit up. And during math that day, like she was just like so confident. Like she felt like she could help. I mean, very confident, even though she may not have known the answer, she just felt like that ownership and that power, like I am a mathematician and I can help with this problem and I can answer these questions. And so just showing them that they are important, I think is what helps, whether it's spotlighting them in an activity, doesn't have to be a whole day. And I recently printed off like a million pictures of them and like put them all over this board and all day, you'll see one go over there and like, "That's me, that's me." Or, "That's you." And just showing them too that they are just important, an important part of our classroom family.
Kassia: And finally Caroline Sweet, a literacy instructional coach in Texas and the author of Patterns of Power en español invites us to think about using classroom conversations as a place to think about and prepare students for engaging with important issues beyond the classroom.
Caroline Sweet: You know, I think a lot about power dynamics, not necessarily within the students in the classroom, but really with what my students experience or will experience in kind of a broader sense of their schooling and education in the United States. And so I want our reading and writing classroom to really push against traditional narratives. I want our talk to revolve around how we push back about stereotypes or things that might occur in the world. Honestly, I want my students to be really prepared to confront any racism, racist structures that they will encounter in the future. So, when I think about power dynamics, I really think about our classroom space as sort of a practice ground for using your voice. How will you speak up? How will you speak up for someone else? How will you speak up for yourself? And let's practice it here and now what, where it's safe and we can kind of process through this together so that when you step out into the world, you're ready.
Caroline Sweet: And I think one of the things about being a language arts teacher is we have our several modes to do that. So, for a student who feels less comfortable using their spoken voice, right, we're pushing into written expression. For a student who feels less comfortable with written expression maybe we're pushing into art, and how we communicate messages through art and words or in a combination with what we say. So, as we kind of explore power dynamics, I certainly want like equity of participation and talk within the classroom. And I want multiple kind of access points for all students to be able to step in and participate. But really ours is like the training field for what are you going to do when you step out into the world?
Kassia: So we're wondering, how are you thinking about power in classroom conversations and beyond, 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.