The Having of Grand Conversations

“I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time and arguments.” So declares Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince and Other Tales—but yesteryear’s teachers, schooled in the art of the quiet, orderly classroom where they talked and students listened, may have embraced Wilde’s quip as the gold standard. Lobbing faux questions, teachers waited for students to swat back the right answers, much like a game of “instructional ping pong,” as Frank Serafini says.

The end result was “sit and get” instruction immortalized in the monotone drone of actor Ben Stein as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Standing at the blackboard, Stein delivers his dry-as-dust lecture, pausing only long enough to probe for the right answer (“Anyone, anyone?”) before providing the answer himself—while his students, nearly comatose with boredom, struggle to stay awake. 

Today’s classrooms, guided by the Common Core speaking and listening standards, which call for rich collaborative conversation, should be anything but silent. Think Dead Poets Society. The teacher, portrayed by Robin Williams, asks penetrating questions about art, poetry, and life. His students, swept up in genuine intellectual inquiry, leap into the conversation with their own flurry of questions and ideas. There’s no one right answer; everyone’s opinion counts.

Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds call this a grand conversation—much like the spirited discussions we enjoy with our friends after we’ve seen a provocative film. Everyone shares his or her own interpretation of the movie, comparing and contrasting it with other films they’ve seen, reviewing memorable moments, analyzing the characters’ motives, arguing over the plot twists, and so on.

When we serve as thoughtful facilitators of classroom talk, demonstrating the quality comments that reflect critical analysis, and provide the space and structure that invite our students to share their own thoughts and questions, we move away from a mind-numbing IRE discourse pattern (teacher initiates, students respond, teacher evaluates) to an invigorating interactive pattern best characterized as I-R-R-R-R, where our opening remark is then followed by a series, or chaining, of student responses.

This is the power of collaborative conversation. Students learn to delve deep into intellectual inquiry: to explore issues, share interpretations, and build on each other’s evolving meanings. As Hilda Taba once wrote, it’s the difference between “covering the curriculum and uncovering the curriculum” (for more on Taba’s work see: http://www.rfwp.com/samples/conceptdevelopmentp1-15.pdf )—or ping ponging across pages of text versus challenging students to wrestle with the meaning of a passage, consider alternative interpretations, and generate new questions that will open up new lines of inquiry.

As you work to spark collaborative conversations with your own students, what techniques and structures do you use to assure your classroom sounds more like Robin Williams’s and less like Ben Stein’s?

For more on the nature of interactive talk, text, and teaching, check out Maryann Eeds and Ralph Peterson’s Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action and Frank Serafini’s book, Interactive Comprehension Strategies: Fostering Meaningful Talk About Text - both available through Scholastic.

Comments

Yes! More grand conversations and less talking to ourselves. Maybe Ferris would not have to take the day off in such a class.

Great post! It is only through hearing all students' voices, without judgment, through thoughtful conversations about relevant issues--where students also get to raise the questions to be deliberated-- that we engage, inspire, and reach every learner.

I love how inclusive this vision of teaching is... How I can contribute to the grand conversation in this classroom, even if I'm not the best reader. We all think as we talk and find new ideas in the thinking of others. Thanks for this eloquent reminder of the possibilities in talk, Lois.

Even in 1st grade (where I teach), we can have grand conversations. I like to ask something like "What do you think?", and after reading a book, I have a set of questions on cards that encourage them to link this book to what they already know. Kids not only learn and retain more, but they feel respected as individuals, too.

What a wonderful post, Lois. Grand conversations are about coming to new thoughts and understanding new perspectives as we talk -- not simply waiting our turn, pretending to listen, and then sharing. Something all of us -- students and teachers -- need to remember and practice. When opinions and ideas are valued in that way, everyone can see what value conversation adds to community, comprehension, and engagement.

Thanks, Lois, for this thought-provoking post. It is a must-read for every teacher! We start having collaborative conversations on Day 1 of first grade. I've found that day by day, conversation after conversation, young learners begin to notice that by listening and responding to the thoughts of their classmates they deepen their understanding of texts, each other, and the world.

Lois, as a retired first grade teacher, I believe that one of the most important things I could do in the classroom was to help children believe that learning was their’s – and often ours, together. I’ve participated in and also observed some jaw-dropping conversations with first graders, as they spoke intensely, earnestly, and strove to make meaning, often ramping up their vocabularies and understanding as they built on each other’s responses. Aside from other benefits to learning, our classroom sometimes became a mini “think tank” as the group came up with a really great idea.

Ahhhh.....the power of purposeful talk and the possibilities - questions, inquiry, curiosity. K students have it. This is how we nurture and promote critical thinking and thoughtful Perspective and opinion. Love it!

A BIG thanks to this blog for celebrating kid conversations---even in 1st grade! I had taught 1st grade for 10 years before I realized student conversations were the key to comprehending. The whole process fell in place the day I invited, "What are you wondering? Go knee to knee, eye to eye, and share with your partner what you're wondering." I had tried a gazillion strategies for developing partner and small-group conversations, but nothing worked very well until I issued this oh-so-simple invitation. And like magic, our first grade classroom changed into a mindful community!

Ardie, I love your thoughts! And, of course, YOU are an expert! Your wonderful book about literature circles and grand conversations—Knee to Knee, Eye to Eye: Circling In On Comprehension—has always been one of my favorites.

Hear! Hear! Thank you for these important words. In such times, we need the listening half of conversation more and more...

Amy, as a poet, you're a listener extraordinaire. You know how to listen for the music of language and for all the lovely sound between each word as well. Dear Readers, don't miss: http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com/

Hi Lois

I enjoyed reading the comment from a teacher who used the “word jaw-dropping conversations”. At Soulanges Elementary School, the one-room schoolhouse, I read and read to the children every day. I kept a big reading log on chart paper. Why? They had reading logs for their personal reading, so I had one for the books I read aloud (400 was our record), and of course, I had my own reading log.

One day out, of the blue, as I was reading a book to the boys and girls, I do not remember which one (sigh) JD (Grade 5) said,
Miss Rumphius traveled the world. My Great Arizona travelled to the faraway places in her books.

Out of the blue in the middle of something. Wow. (We always interrupted each other, what can I say?) What connections the boys and girls made in their books, stories they wrote, etc.
When I read the jaw-dropping comment in your email, this story came to me right away.

Miss Rumphius – Barbara Clooney
Miss Rumphius wanted to travel the world when she grew up and then to live by the sea. Just like her grandfather had done. However he tells her she must do something to make the world more beautiful. Young Alice did not know what that would be. Of course, she would.

My Great Arizona - Gloria Houston
“what she liked most of all was to read-and dream-about all the faraway places she would visit one day”….Instead, she stayed in the Blue Ridge Mountains where she was born, and taught generations of children about words and numbers and all the places they could go one day.

Lorraine Krause