Thursday, January 13, 2005

More on Accountable Talk

Our AUSSIE consultant visited my classroom twice this week. She usually works with the language arts classes, but I'd asked for her help - or at least a bit of diagnostic work - with the accountable talk idea, since this week's lessons provide what seems like a really good opportunity to experiment with student discussion.

The first day she came in was Tuesday afternoon, after the ELA test. She agreed with me that we were pretty far from the kind of discussion shown in the PD video, although we both recognized that after spending the morning in enforced silence, the students were inevitably going to be chatty and difficult to keep on task. We ultimately decided that all the eighth grade teachers need to talk about working together to introduce the norms of academic discussion, and come up with a plan to scaffold the students towards greater ability to talk and listen to each other in order to learn.

Yesterday, another test day, I was on my own, and again the classroom was very loud, the students weren't listening to each other very well, and most groups had one or two extremely dominant voices.

A couple of Local Instructional Superintendents came to observe some classrooms today - they have some doubts about the teaching model the region wants us to use, and so our LIS offered to show them how we use it in our school. I was chatting with them and with our AUSSIE, and just joking around about how after yesterday's deafening "discussion" of anuran population declines, I was convinced that this accountable talk stuff was bunk. I'd done a mini-lesson on "sentence starters" that I would be listening for, such as, "I agree with you that..." and so on... but I didn't hear a single one of the sentence starters in the entire 30 minute discussion time! Then again, I couldn't really hear anything... They thought this was amusing, and - mercifully - spent the day visiting language arts classes rather than science (usually I'm welcoming of visitors, but today's lesson didn't seem likely to impress on them the merits of the region's teaching model). I'm proud to say that my colleagues' teaching absolutely blew them away, especially when they realized that one of our language arts teachers has only been at it for five months.

I'm happy to say that today's discussions went better. It really is amazing how crazy a day of testing can make a child who is otherwise perfectly capable of following instructions and speaking (sort of) quietly!

Our AUSSIE came in during my sixth period class. I was called out to meet with the father of one of the students who has been particularly silly and mean in the last few weeks, so I didn't get to give many instructions... the task before them was difficult: they had developed theories for anuran population declines, and now they had to design field or lab experiments that might provide additional evidence for their theory. They've designed experiments before, but never field experiments, and never on topics of this scale. So I was nervous about what I would return to when I came back from my meeting with the parent. I was thrilled to find the room a little louder than I would have liked, but not at all deafening, and most of the groups well on their way to absolutely workable experiments! They still have a long way to go as far as listening to each other is concerned, but teaching them these skills felt like a more reasonable task today than it did yesterday.

And my AUSSIE commented that it's hard to stick to the rules of civil discussion when you're really excited about something - and she saw that the students are really, really excited about this project. I can't complain about that - better that the discussion be overheated due to passion than insipid due to boredom....

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