Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Instructional Conversation

A few years ago, I participated in a training offered by the University of Georgia to help improve learning for all students. This was put on by their CLASE department, or the Center for Latino Advancement and Success in Education. It offered training on how to help Latino students succeed, but the research proved that it helped improve ALL student subgroups.

When I heard about that, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. (To check out their website, click here.)

One of the most important strategies I took away from this training (that lasted for a couple of weeks each summer along with additional support and training over a span of two years) was the Instructional Conversation, or the IC.

An instructional conversation is a lot like a regular conversation, but it focuses on instruction. Seems simple enough! But it's quite different from what kids are used to in typical classroom settings. When we first rolled it out in a few of our classrooms four years ago, there was quite a transition period.

In most class settings, the teacher asks a question, students raise their hands, and then they wait for the teacher to call on them. In an IC, there's a small group of students having a conversation about what they are learning or what they have learned. The teacher is there only to support and clarify misconceptions.

When we first tried it in one of my reading small groups, I'd ask a question about the text that I wanted the students to discuss. I asked a question, and a couple of the kids raised their hands, and the others just sat there. I realized I'd have to TRAIN my students to have an instructional conversation.

We talked about what a regular conversation looks like. I asked my students, "Do you raise your hands to talk to your friends at recess?" They all laughed, of course, and said no! I asked them to tell me how they talk to their friends at recess in a regular conversation. (Be sure to use the word conversation a lot.)

They said, "Well, we all kind of just... jump in... when we have something to say!" I asked, "Sometimes, do you talk over each other?" They replied that yes, that did happen sometimes. I asked if that was okay, and they said that it was, because they ususally sorted it out. Most of the time, though, they kind of took turns.

I asked, "Is it like taking turns on the slide? You have one turn, then you have to kind of get in line and wait until everyone else has gone?" Again, they laughed, and said no, the conversation kind of bounced around. AHA! That's the key I was looking for!

Conversation in an IC should have the "ping pong" effect - it should bounce around from person to person. Ideally, you want everyone to have a say at some point. You don't want any one person to take over the conversation, and you don't want someone sitting there saying nothing. This all comes with time and gentle redirecting from you (that's your only job anyway, basically).

Sometimes, though, kiddos need a little prompting on how to carry on a conversation. That's why I love to make conversation cards for the kids. I hand these out at the beginning of each IC. If they are having trouble talking, providing evidence, disagreeing politely, or continuing the conversation, I will say, "Why don't you look at your conversation card for some ideas on how to move forward?"

If you'd like these cards to use in your classroom, you can download them for free here.

You may be wondering - what kinds of things could be discussed in an IC? Really anything where students would have to talk, provide evidence, possibly agree or disagree, and share ideas. Here are some examples.

Read these two short texts. Determine the organizational structure for both, and support your decisions with evidence from the texts. Then compare and contrast the structure for each passage. Explain why you think the author chose to present the information in that way. (You may want to write the question down for them!)

The answer is 49.37. What is the question? You must use create at least two questions, one with addition/subtraction and one with multiplication/division. Show at least two ways to solve each question.

Language Arts:
You have been provided with short text. Choose 2 sets of sentences to combine with punctuation or conjunctions. Choose 2 other sentences to reduce into simpler sentences. Work together to decide which sentences to combine and which ones to reduce. Be able to explain why you chose which sentences and how you combined/reduced them.

Social Studies:
You have been provided with a railroad map of the United States in 1860. Using this map, discuss why cattle trails became necessary in order to get beef from Texas to other parts of the United States. Choose several routes the cattle could take in order to reach different eastern destinations. Which routes would be the best? Which would be the worst? Be prepared to defend your ideas.

It seems like it's basically just group work. It is, but there is a structure for conversational support! The teacher is present to guide students back to the topic at hand if needed and to clarify any misconceptions. Oftentimes in group work, one or two students take over, and not everyone is fully involved in speaking about their learning. When you shift from "group work" to instructional conversation, the focus is on how the students are talking.

During an IC, students should be using the language of learning. They should be using the vocabulary from your unit. That is the key! The focus on conversation is what truly separates this from regular group work.

I love using ICs in my classroom! Have questions? Let me know in the comments! Do you do something similar in your classroom? Please share your ideas.


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