Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Accountable Talk?

On Monday, our AUSSIE consultants led a PD workshop on "accountable talk." Basically, this is when you teach children to discuss material in a rigorous way in order to understand it better. We watched a short video of a small group of high school students discussing connections between Sartre's "Existentialism" and a short story, "Sonny's Blues." The video was an example of accountable talk because the students

  • listened to each other attentively
  • built on each other's ideas - and challenged each other, respectfully
  • referred regularly to the texts, notes, and a dictionary
  • provided evidence for their opinions and theories
  • asked questions to clarify each other's ideas

and so on....

I think it would be amazing to get my students to the point where they could really listen to each other and use conversation as a way of building understanding. These skills are important and, I think, rarely found even among adults; how many college discussion sections are nothing more than each student saying some random thought, without any real give-and-take?

This week's lessons, the Missing Anurans project, seemed perfect for practicing accountable talk, or at least looking for how it happens in the classroom and why it often does not happen. The students have multiple "clue sheets" that they have to read and discuss in order to come up with a theory and a way to test their theory. Each student only reads one or two of the clue sheets, but there are eight total, so the students must share information with the others in their group in order to piece together a theory.

My students haven't had much "training" in how to discuss something on their own. In our PD, we talked about teaching them "sentence starters" such as, "I agree with you that..." or "Yes, and also..." or "I disagree, because..." or "Can you explain what you mean by..." Another teacher in my school - who teaches language arts - does a lot of work with her students on how to discuss a text. She records everything they say in a conversation, then has the class review and compare their conversation to a rubric. She has small groups present a snippet of discussion in a "fishbowl" format, where the rest of the class observes and then they de-brief what happened during the conversation. She sometimes leaves a tape recorder on one group's table so that she can "catch them" using accountable talk (and, she says, the mere presence of the tape recorder tends to raise the level of discussion for that group). She teaches them about the various helpful and unhelpful roles that people play in group discussions, such as encourager, insulter, organizer, notetaker, joker, etc. She says that she's made progress with the students in their ability to discuss what they read with each other.

It all sounds amazing, and a little intimidating.

The conversation in my room today was deafening. I have six groups of 4-5 students, so in theory, only 6 people should be speaking at any given moment, but that is never what happens. The students made good connections between the various clues, and they did develop theories, and I think most of the kids understood what their groups had come up with... but we were really, really far from the kind of respectful, intellectual discussion that the accountable talk idea is driving at. I don't feel like I have the time to invest in all the intensive training activities that my language arts colleague has put in. Hopefully, now that the test is over, the eighth grade ELA teacher will be able to do some of that work in her classroom, which I can then support and build upon in mine. After all, the job of language arts teachers is to teach communication (in its many forms). That is a PIECE of my job, just like reinforcing reading and writing skills, vocabulary development, graphing, measuring, and other math skills, etc., etc. are all pieces of my job... but in the service of teaching science concepts. I think each of these skills is hugely and legitimately important... but this accountable talk stuff feels HARD, and that makes the list of skills that I try to reinforce in my teaching seem longer and more overwhelming.


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