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Why I Want My Middle School Students To Talk…MORE!

Chalk Talk

It isn’t often that you hear a middle school teacher say she wants to hear her students talk more. In fact, a small part of me was a little afraid that the title of this post alone might result in an instant delete from your inbox. But please, hang with me. This year, I have been working to redefine what student voice really looks like in my classroom, and I think you might be interested in my takeaways.  Concentrating on this goal has involved learning how to manage the amount, and the quality, of the conversation that occurs in my classes.

I set the goal to focus on student voice this school year because I want my students to feel heard. Feeling heard is important for all of us, but I feel like it is especially important for middle schoolers. They are in a stage of life where they are trying to figure out who they are within the confines of who others think they should be. They feel ready for independence, yet so much of their daily experience is controlled. If you have ever talked one-on-one with a middle schooler in a personal setting, it isn’t very long before they mutter the words, “[insert name] just doesn’t understand me.”

As a teacher, I want to be one of the adults that my students feel are responding to them, not talking at them. I think that is the key to them feeling safe enough to learn. Note: responding to them does not mean they will always like how I will respond, but I have promised myself to provide opportunities for their voices to be heard–regularly.

I also want my students to work hard. They are bright. They have valuable insight. Prior to this year (and maybe because I am a writing teacher??) I had fallen into the trap of thinking that “working hard” meant having students produce a physical product. Not any more. I have come to recognize vocalization as a different form of assessment–an incredibly valuable one–and I’ve worked it into my assessment routine.

What I Tried

At the onset of planning any given unit, I commit to providing my students with a variety of experiences. During each unit, I strive to plan whole-group and small-group activities, opportunities to read, reflect, play, write and speak, and students will be expected to produce evidence of thinking and growth through active demonstration, writing in their notebooks, and by participating in online activities. This year, I added concentrated efforts to get them talking.

If you do your research, there are plenty of strategies to help teachers regulate classroom conversations. These strategies are effective classroom management strategies, so even if you do not want to use student dialogue as a form of assessment, they are great for conversation control. Here are my favorite “go tos”:

Socratic Seminar

What I Am Listening For

If you get really good at it, strategic classroom conversation can become an extremely effective mode of assessment. While the development of questions can take some planning, the execution is quick, easy, and the kids love it. Most of the time, they don’t even recognize it as an assessment! And, assessing their understanding is as easy as eavesdropping on conversations. You get to be the fly on the wall, circulating or standing back to hear their thinking. After you hear what they have to say, you’ll know what to do next and they will feel heard.

So, this year I’ve made it a point to get my middle school students to talk more, and I have spent more time leaning in to listen. If you have stuck with me and are still reading, thank you. As I promised, here are my takeaways:

  • If I want to teach the whole child, I have to offer a variety of opportunities for my learners to show me their learning. Some students have underdeveloped skills with writing, others are unable to effectively communicate orally. We have to practice both.
  • Make sure you have a quick way to end the dialogue. Set a timer or use a chant to regain their attention when the conversation is over.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and there is a sudden hush…you have more work to do. They don’t yet have the understanding and you need to back up.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students can’t articulate answers clearly, it probably means they’re still processing. Let the conversations go on a bit longer and interject, and/or make time to bring the group back together and discuss as a whole.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students are quick to respond, listen hard. It will give you direction on where to go next. I have been amazed at how much more I get from hearing conversations as opposed to I have with written reflections, polls or exit tickets.
  • Always, always, always, know your purpose. This is one strategy. Don’t go overboard and use it too frequently. Use it when it makes sense.

I realize that, most of the time, middle school teachers are trying to do anything to get their students to STOP talking. I, for one, am not above bribing them with suckers when necessary (FYI, handing everyone a Dum Dums will buy you just enough time to make it through a mini-lesson on really important days!). But, middle schoolers love to talk. Use it!

1 “Teaching Strategy: Socratic Seminar | Facing History.” https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/socratic-seminar. Accessed 3 May. 2019.

2 “Flipgrid.” https://flipgrid.com/. Accessed 3 May. 2019.

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