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Learning Conversations and Classroom Talk

First we learn to speak, then we learn to listen, then talk.
Finally, we learn what our voice means.
                                                  ~David Booth

 I’m on a quest for instructional strategies that will support teachers who are trying to increase and improve the types of student talk happening in their classrooms.  At least one Avon Maitland Secondary School inquiry group (an English department) will be experimenting with learning conversations.  That’s what we’re calling talking for learning.

There are a growing number of resources that outline the importance of classroom talk and the different types of classroom talk.  The information below was extracted from David Booth’s work with Me Read, No Way and with the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.  To improve and increase learning conversations in our classrooms:

Monitor the ratio of teacher talk versus student talk to ensure as much of the latter as possible.

    • Traditionally, the teacher talks for 95% of classroom time.  Try timing teacher talk versus organized, purposeful, student talk. Booth recommends that we pay attention to who talks and when.

Model and encourage the use of purposeful and accountable talk. 

    • David Booth notes that the teacher is modelling talk right from the beginning.  We learn the culture of the classroom through demonstration.  The teacher might ask: What did you notice about the way I talked? Or the question I asked?  Think back to the best question you heard everybody.
    • Booth also explains that accountable talk is ‘on task’ talk. The teacher will need to redirect often.  No voice dominates. No voice is omitted. No voice bullies. The talk is accountable to the learning community and accountable to rigorous thinking.

Explore different modes of talk with students.  Here are a few to consider:

    • Social talk (in the halls and at the beginning of class)
    • Interactive/dialogic talk
    • Accountable talk (there is a right to talk, listen and disagree)
    • Role talk (voice is stronger because it isn’t you)
    • Digital talk (texting, chatting, etc)

Now What?

What do classroom learning conversations look like at the most granular level?  In the classroom? As part of a lesson?  What are the foundational skills students need?  What are the barriers we face? Who are the experts among us when it comes to accountable talk? That is where the experimentation begins.

For our teachers, the emphasis is on the classroom as a learning lab where we experiment with instruction, because we can’t possibly know all of the pieces that need to be in place until we try.  All we have is theory and research, until we try.  We need to learn it for ourselves. We need to learn by doing.  And when we do, I’ll share our learning with you.  Please share your learning with us.

More Resources on Classroom Talk

Me Read And How: Ontario Teachers Report on How to Improve Boys’ Literacy Skills
Discovering Voice (Video)
Grand Conversations in the Junior Classroom
Let’s Talk About Listening
Year 7 Speaking and Listening Bank (England)

Photo by Wader 

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Don’t Forget to Show People Who You Really Are


Visual Notes by Guilia.Forsythe

Before I left for the Unplug’d Canadian Education Summit, my best friend gave me some solid advice:

Try to be open and let people in.

Our conversation was a little bit longer than that, but the message was about what I had to do in order to truly connect with people.

I didn’t like hearing it.

On my long journey to Toronto and then onward to Northern Edge Algonquin I reflected on my friend’s words and the reason for saying them.

I have walls.

I have built walls in my personal life in order to protect myself.  I tell myself that I have built them in my professional life in order to remain professional, but there too, the walls are about protection.

When we first arrived at Northern Edge for Unplug’d, Zoe Brannigan-Pipe  shared an observation with me.  She noticed that people were unsure how to shed their ‘professional personas’ in what was clearly a casual and intimate camp environment.  Although it didn’t take long for that feeling to dissolve, I think we all had to negotiate just how many protective layers we were comfortable shedding on day one of the summit.

After returning home from Unplug’d, Kelly Power blogged about the tension between her professional voice and her authentic voice.  When reflecting on what she wished she had said on the last day, during our whole group reflection, Kelly wrote, “I played it safe. I went into consultant mode.”

We all have walls.

Walls protect, but they are also barriers. Walls make being vulnerable difficult, but we have to let ourselves be vulnerable if we want to form deeper connections and relationships with people.  Being vulnerable means we may get hurt.  Nobody wants a bruised ego or hurt feelings in their personal or professional lives.

What I’m wondering after all of this, is how we recreate elements of Unplug’d in our daily work?  How do we create professional environments where people form connections and relationships that allow for risk and vulnerability? Is it foolish to hope for more ‘connectivity’ and deep sharing in education or should we be satisfied with these experiences taking place as events… in pockets?

So how did I do?  Did I follow my friend’s advice?

In an effort to be ‘open’, here is an audio recording of my reflection on the last day of Unplug’d (recorded on my livescribe pen).

My Reflection to the Group at Unplug’d

Oh, and in the mind map by Guilia Forsythe (above), I’m the blonde woman on the right, next to the word vulnerable.


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Unplug’d: Unplugging to Connect

by Kim Crawford and Andrew Forgrave

Photo by Jeannine St. Amand

Central to Unplug’d was the notion of leaving the Internet behind. Various thoughts on connecting, unplugging, and focusing attention have started to emerge.

What did it feel like to unplug?

Kim:I didn’t have far to go from ‘plugged’ to ‘unplugged’. I scaled back my online presence a year ago.  Since then it has been sporadic; I lurked, but rarely participated.  For me, unplugging was only difficult in that I couldn’t text with my teenage children or search for information online (which I do a lot).

Andy:If I have the time, I tend to be online, keeping tabs on conversations that occur at all parts of the day. So while I was fully prepared to unplug, I found myself wrestling with how to choose the right time. In part, I was observing others to see how they would handle the transition to disconnect. With other folks tweeting (posting to Twitter?) on the train, there was an interest in participating in the recording/telling of “the departure story.” However, upon arrival at South River, there was a great flurry of activity, and a while thereafter, about halfway through the 22 km bike ride to The Edge, I simply realized I would turn off my phone to conserve its charge. I was unplugged.

How did being unplugged shape your experience and interactions with people?

Photo by Kim Crawford

Kim: I was present and focused on the moment, so I fully embraced and engaged in the experience.  At The Edge, I think we were able to practice mindfulness, without the distractions of news, people and information from outside of our Unplug’d circle.  Throughout our formal and informal conversations, we listened to what people’s eyes conveyed. We listened to gestures and body language.  We listened to emotion in a wavering or cracking voice that we wouldn’t hear, couldn’t hear, in a tweet, and we were there to place a comforting hand on a shoulder.  We couldn’t hide behind online personas, so we exposed ourselves for who we are.  We accepted each other for who we are. And, with the focus on connection, we couldn’t help but ask “what is my connection? What can I offer?”  We formed deeper relationships by removing the barriers of time, space and pretense.

Andy: Without devices buzzing in my pocket, supported by the hyper-natural setting of The Edge, and with real-live friends front and centre, awareness of the Internet melted away. Maybe I shifted into a former at-camp mode (years ago, working at summer camp for weeks at a time, the only news came in the form of a newspaper — which I ignored).  At Unplug’d, without phones or Internet, we worked with primitives: paper & pens, even markers, paints, rocks and stone. And canoes. Without distractions of plugged-in life, conversations went deep. Really deep. These are experiences that just can’t happen online. Internet? We didn’t need no stinkin’ Internet.

How did you react to the ability to plug back in?

Kim: After sending some texts to my children, it was all about the pictures and the conversation.  We were still together on the bus when we could plug back in, so it was a group share-out to those who weren’t at The Edge.  I wanted to tell a part of the story, so I used my pictures. I started editing them and planning captions.  I uploaded everything on the train from Toronto to London.

Andy: As with “the departure” from Toronto, I was interested in observing our collective response to “the return,” and the opportunity to plug-in. It came as a shock to me to discover that there would be WiFi on the return bus. I somehow felt as if nature was testing us, to see if we had learned a lesson — or not. I avoided the immediate temptation to check what was being shared on Twitter. In my head I was hearing, “I have four more hours to connect with these people face-to-face.” And I’m glad I did.

The next day back, however, after some time spent sleeping, presented the opportunity to continue conversations with Unplug’d delegates as they travelled home. And that meant being online. And online I was. Looking to carry on the discussions that we hadn’t had time to finish. Looking to make plans for future projects. Caring for new friends who were now getting further and further away. And not wanting Unplug’d to end.

How did being (at) unplug’d inspire you?

Photo by Dean Shareski

Kim: I will make more of an effort to be connected both online and off.  In order to do this, I’ve generated these reminders for myself:

  • Listen first
  • Stay open to people
  • Don’t be afraid to speak your truth, but share it with kindness
  • Participate online
  • Keep moving forward even if you don’t know what the path or destination look like
  • Join forces

Andy: Unplug’d was an inspiration in many ways. With regards to the connected/disconnected tension, Unplug’d was a wonderful reminder of the benefits of stepping away from day-to-day routines to renew connections with things we overlook in our busy lives. So I’m going commit to continue to unplug; to break the habit of continual online connectedness. I do know that there’s an issue of balance in here. Too little connection and the conversation gets lost. But the other conversation is important, too. The Unplug’d experience made that very clear.

We’d like to hear from you.

What does it feel like to unplug?  How does being unplugged shape your experiences and interactions with people?  How have you reacted to the ability to plug back in?  How has being (at) unplug’d inspire you?

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Conversations about Unplug’d: Canadian Education Summit 2011

by Kim Crawford and Andrew Forgrave

UnPlug'd 2011 Delegate Photo


This past weekend, 37 connected educators from across Canada gathered in Toronto for the Unplug’d: Canadian Education Summit 2011. While we shared a few initial hours getting to meet one-another face-to-face within the relative comforts of the Toronto Westin Harbour Castle hotel, after a few hours sleep, we boarded an Ontario Northlands train to South River, Ontario. From there we travelled 22 kilometres into the bush to the Northern Edge Algonquin resort. Off-the-grid (solar power only), and no Internet.

The purpose of the summit was to allow us to gather and explore present-day issues and themes within education. Each of us came from various backgrounds in education, prepared to share and discuss an important-to-us element in education. The resulting work will be shared over the course of the next few weeks. But the relationships that were made, extended, and strengthened have a wonderful potential to take the Unplug’d 2011 experience even further.

Over the the next while, we (Andy and I) will be reflecting on this amazing experience. Won’t you join in the conversation?

First Topic:
Unplugging to Connect (publishes Friday, August 12th)

Kim’s unplugd11 photo set on Flickr
Andy’s unplugd11 photos on Flickr

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My Colleagues are my Teachers: Reflections on Teacher Inquiry

Two years ago I couldn’t have foreseen how facilitating teacher inquiry meetings would impact my own professional development.  I’ve invested approximately 240 hours as a facilitator, looking at student work and exploring next steps in student learning and teacher instruction.  But I didn’t learn in isolation; my colleagues were present for each one of those 240 hours.  They were at the table with questions, ideas and records of practice, and I learned from them.  I continue to learn from them.  My colleagues are my teachers.

And they didn’t just teach me.  They taught each other.  For two years they focused on improving students’ written communication, engaged in reflective practice and used assessments to inform instructional decisions.  They found their way with a job embedded learning model that was new to our secondary schools.  They brought student and teacher work to the table and kept student achievement at the core of all conversations.

By the end of the 2009-10 school year, it became clear that students need explicit instruction in subject-specific literacy skills.  For example, if we are to improve how students support their thinking when writing in different subject areas, students need to understand how the types of evidence vary from one subject to another.  Overall, students need subject-specific instruction in:

  • the questions they should ask of texts;
  • the background knowledge required to decode a subject’s texts;
  • the types of evidence required to support thinking in particular subjects.

With this new lens on subject-specific literacy, I wanted to know how each subject would define literacy if they could make the ‘literacy rules’.   I wanted explicit statements of what it meant to be literate in transportation technology, for example.  I closed the school year with subject-based focus groups that worked on developing these definitions.   In some cases, the focus groups also looked at the types of texts they use in the classroom versus the authentic texts of their discipline.  Our goal in each session was to expand the definition of literacy beyond reading and writing tasks.  Below you will find the thinking that came out of our focus group sessions in a slide show created by a collective of Avon Maitland teachers.  This is a work-in-progress and it will evolve, but with this work our learning continues.

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Student Voice and TEDxOntarioEd

I’ve sat down to type my reflection on TedxOntarioEd every evening since it took place on April 9th. I’ve written about what it was like to get to know the amazing organizing team of Jamie Weir, Ben Hazzard, Rodd Lucier, Sharon Drummond and Colin Jagoe. I’ve written about the speakers, motivation and meeting people from my PLN for the first time. My words cannot do any of this justice. They seem dry and flat.

So, inspired by Ben Hazzard’s blog post, I now choose to incorporate my thoughts on student voice and TEDx with images from the night and feedback on my writing, provided by my friend Stacy Someville @stacesome (seen below with her husband, Vince).

Me: Last Friday night educators gathered for TEDxOntarioEd. Throughout the evening we heard from adults, or former students. Tim Long, writer and executive producer for The Simpsons, reflected on his experiences as a student in the gifted program at South Huron District High School. Jesse Brown, host and co-producer for Search Engine, reflected on what it was like as a student who enjoyed and honored texts that weren’t valued by his high school teachers. Paul Finkelstein, Stratford Northwestern teacher and slow food advocate, shared his old report cards with us (and apparently with his principal) and recognized that he now creates a class that he would have enjoyed as a student.

My friend, and Avon Maitland’s student success co-ordinator, Stacy Somerville, wrote her master’s thesis on the ways that our school stories shape us as teachers and as people. At the TEDxOntarioEd after party, she spent a lot of time talking about this, but even more time talking about Tim Ludwig, a student presenter from Petrolia. Tim’s story isn’t a reflection. It is now. It is his reality, his everyday life. The pause in his speech while he struggled to find words and his place was, for me, symbolic of the need to listen to our students.

Stacy: Yes! And not fill in the blanks with our thoughts and what we think he is thinking. And wait time. Someone else mentioned time – giving people the ‘permission’ to take time to learn.

Me: We were a room full of educators. If we had jumped in, if we had interrupted Tim while he struggled to find his thoughts, what would we have said? Would our words, thoughts or instructions have changed Tim’s narrative? Instead, we listened and let him find his way of constructing the story he wanted to tell us.

Stacy: And I had goosebumps and a big lump in my throat. Love that kid. To speak fearlessly and honestly – very powerful.

Stacy is right. Our school stories shape who we are, and for our students, they will shape who they will become. We should spend more time listening.

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