The Power of Talk Moves Students Towards Deeper Understanding in Small Groups
Over the past 9 months, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with a spunky group of fifth graders here at Maple Wood School who have challenged me beyond measure, brought me to tears with their genuine kindness, and surprised me with the depth of their knowledge. Through this experience, one of the things that has brought me the greatest joy as a teacher is watching the “light bulb” switch on and both seeing and hearing a student suddenly make sense of a new concept. I have found—through constant observation and formative assessment—that these moments happen nearly every day in my classroom, and that the teachers in our room can’t even begin to take all of the credit. So often, it is the students who take their peers to that deeper level of understanding and I just get to sit back and watch the magic happen.
I look forward to presenting my newfound knowledge and taking you on this exciting journey of learning with me.
Readers’ Workshop has been an interest and passion of mine since first learning about it a couple years ago. It has been a pleasure to work in a school that knows and utilizes this model, as well as to work in a classroom with students and teachers who appreciate the value that this teaching model has. As a new teacher who is committed to a life of learning, it was very important to me to learn how to use this model to its greatest extent. In an effort to do so, I began to see the importance that the turn-and-talk, partner- and small-group share, and book clubs had in each students’ learning process. It was because of my interest in improving my knowledge and instruction around Readers’ Workshop that I decided to focus this colloquium on how students lead each other to deeper, more meaningful levels of understanding through the conversations they have each day about their books. While researching this topic, I discovered that conversational moves such as participation by teachers and students, linking, asking for and proving knowledge, and asking for and providing rigorous thinking leads to deep understanding (Wolf et. al, 2006). Each of these moves lends itself to specific types of questioning that we use every day—and evidently, so do our students.
I began to focus on a small group of four kids who were participating in a book group, reading Holes by Louis Sachar. This decision was easy for me to make as this was a group of readers at or around the same reading level (so they were accessing the book through a similar level of fluency and comprehension), made of up two boys and two girls, and they were all willing to “help me” with my colloquium by being filmed during each conversation. I encouraged the students to be natural, talk to each other and not to me or the camera, and let them know that there was no right or wrong to what they said or did in their conversations. Over time, I found myself broadening my observations to how these same four kids (and eventually the other students in my class) communicated their thinking with their peers in other subject areas.
Extensive research on the Reggio Emilia approach (Rinaldi, 2004) and their use of video and photo documentations in the classroom made the choice in the area of documenting my findings simple: I would take videos of each conversation that my book group held. In the article, Using Technology in Reggio-Inspired Long-Term Projects (Trepanier-Street et. al, 2001), there was much emphasis on how “[u]sing technology to document these projects can be a valuable tool for teacher reflection on children’s development and the teaching process.” I knew that taking videos would allow me to continually go back to their conversations to reflect in a way that taking notes simply wouldn’t. These reflections provided me with a lot to think about—how do I use what I see my students doing and saying to inform my upcoming focus lessons or debrief talks after their book group is done talking? What do my students need to continue to work on and how can I model that for them? Forman (2010) said in his article, Reading the Intentionality of Young Children, that once we “slow down to watch the[…]child’s activity[…]we thereby become more effective in the moves we make to support” our students and their learning. Video documentations allowed me to take this time to slow down and really think about what my students were showing me.
Eventually, I needed a way to store and reflect on these videos in a meaningful and organized way. Through research on methods of documentation in the classroom, I discovered and learned about an app called Evernote. This app enabled me to take photos, audio recordings, and notes, as well as upload the videos I had already taken on my devices. I was able to share the usefulness and value of Evernote with the other interns, in turn providing them with a space that they could also store their data and observations.
Things I’ve Learned
Through this experience of observing and documenting my students’ conversations, I have learned how much knowledge each of them holds and that, when empowered and supported, they are able to impart that knowledge on to their peers. I have also seen a pattern develop in my classroom in regards to the methods my students use to bring their peers to deeper levels of understanding, such as providing proof of their thinking a text, modeling or demonstrating a skill, or asking a probing question. Listening to the language my students use and the skills that they demonstrate when helping their peers make sense of information has helped me begin modeling these same behaviors in ways that will enhance the success and outcome of their conversations. I have also found the value in helping my students see the role that they play in their peers’ learning—it is important for students to recognize the power that they have to teach and to instill a desire in them to do so. It has become clear that when “the students [are given] the responsibility to lead the dialogue[…]they develop into increasingly independent readers” and thinkers (Wolf et. al, 2006).
As with any project or investigation, there will be challenges and roadblocks. One of the things I ran into early on in my process of documenting my group’s conversations was that one of my students was very self conscious when the camera was on her. It became evident that she would virtually opt out of the conversation as soon as I started recording. This aversion to being recorded robbed her of the experience of sharing her knowledge, her group-mates of gaining the knowledge she may have otherwise passed along to them, and me of catching her share this knowledge in the moment. After my first session of filming the group and realizing her discomfort in front of the camera, I told her that I would not put her face on camera during the discussions, especially if it meant that she would feel more comfortable and able to participate. Still, it was difficult for me to remember this agreement—especially at the beginning—that I was only supposed to film her hands. Additionally, the fact that I had only recorded her hands was difficult for her group-mates to ignore when they watched back the videos I had taken the week before. The students’ inquiries as to why her face wasn’t recorded took the attention away from the meaningful conversation taking place on the recording and put the attention back onto her, which she had wanted to avoid in the first place.
The technology component also presented its fair share of challenges. First, Evernote was not an easy program to use to its greatest extent when using it only on an iPhone. Evernote works best on an iPad simply for the larger size of the screen and keyboard when typing, so I eventually needed to invest in an iPad in order to make my documentations as meaningful as possible. It was frustrating to need to make that purchase in order to have the greatest amount of success, but in the end it’s a decision I am glad I made.
It was also a challenge, as a teacher, to step back and have no part in leading the conversations along. Sometimes, though with good intentions, I failed at this altogether. Other times, I had stepped out entirely and the conversation seemed to go nowhere, leaving me wanting more for the kids and for my own research.
Things I’m Still Wondering About
Because my project focused only on the ways in which students use their conversations to teach their peers, my attention was not really on the structure of the groupings themselves. It would be interesting to see how different methods of placing kids together change the ways that they teach each other. Is it more effective for students to be matched by gender, reading level, willingness to participate, book being read, etc? How would grouping students change in mixed-grade classrooms? These questions will drive my future research in this area, and I will continue to explore the effectiveness of different methods and styles of grouping in each area of education, no matter what grade I end up teaching.
- Forman, G. E. (2010). Reading the intentionality of young children. ECRP Early Childhood Research & Practice, 12(1), Retrieved from http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v12n1/forman.html
- Mary, L. T., Seong, B. H., & Jennifer, C. B. (2001). Using technology in reggio-inspired long-term projects. Early Childhood Education Journal, 28(3), 181-188.
- Mikyung, K. W., Amy, C. C., & Lauren, B. R. (2006). Accountable talk in reading comprehension instruction. National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing
- Rinaldi, C. (2004). The relationship between documentation and assessnemt. Innovations in early education: the international reggio exchange, 11(1)