Saturday, May 19, 2012

Classroom Discussions

I know that I have written other posts about the importance of conversation in the classroom but I keep coming back to it. Because I am a Special Education teacher, I am regularly in fourth, fifth and sixth grade classrooms and the level of conversation varies across the grades. However, these levels of conversation also vary within the grades. Some groups of students are inherently able to use thinking stems, notes, and active listening to push the level of dialogue around them. Other students struggle with conversation and a high percentage of the strugglers are on my caseload. I have been working on interventions for these students. While their IEPs do not necessarily have goals and objectives about listening, reflecting, and integrating the verbal messages around them, maybe the IEPs should, since these skills are foundational supports for interpreting and writing about text; these writing skills are embedded in goals and objectives. 
Here are some of the instructional strategies that we have been implementing in the classrooms:
  • using tripods of thinking stems to prompt students with phrases that keep conversations going
  • modeling with the regular education teacher unscripted, improvised discussions about books and the messages contained in them
  • coaching pairs or groups of students with ghost whispers of what they could say in a discussion
  • pairing some of our stronger conversationalists with some of the strugglers and challenging the stronger ones to concentrate on their listening skills
  • providing students with colored blocks, with each member of the conversation having his/her own color. Whenever a student contributes, he/she places a block into the middle. We then use the “What did you notice” phrase to inspire students to think about who were the active participants and what that felt/looked like.
Opening Minds by Peter Johnston is a powerful book that emphasizes the importance of dialogue in classrooms. Disagreement can be inspiring if we use it to deepen our own beliefs.  “We want children to realize that although they are trying to reach a shared conclusion, challenges and disagreements are expected, even encouraged, because they are useful for uncovering assumptions and new possibilities, and for making reasoning public” (p. 106). Expressing opinions and listening to those around us are such critical skills for students to develop in this rapidly changing world. This is definitely an area around which I will continue to push my own professional development!

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