Talking. It’s something most of us do every day, but we didn’t always know how to do it.
Today on the podcast we’re discussing the value of teaching talk in the classroom. We’re joined by Shana Frazin and Katie Wischow, co-authors of the new book Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk: Teaching Kids to Talk with Clarity and Purpose. Shana and Katy passionately believe in the need to help students develop strong talk skills across the school day, in every subject.
We started our conversation with the simple question, why teach talk?
Shana: One of the things that Katy and I were thinking about when we wrote the book, one of our big noticings as we worked in schools, was this idea that lots of teachers we work with, beautiful, smart, well-intentioned teachers, were dedicating time to talk. But we had this realization that creating time to do something and teaching how to do that thing, we're very different. And so we thought it was important to, from the beginning of the book, just lay out the foundations of why we think teaching talk is so important.
Brett: You also write about the importance of why we need to teach listening strategies as well. Why is that?
Katy: Well, I mean the easy answer is listening is the other side of the coin to talking. And so if you talk and talk and talk and no one's listening, what's the point? But again, thinking about all the things that we know about how people learn, that a lot of times we're being asked to do something but we haven't actually been taught how to do it.
Brett: Sort of with that, you say in the opening of the book where you really look to teacher's concerns about time management and just how they have time for all these things. And you marry that with the importance of talk. Why is it important to really consider time and talk and those two things together?
Shana: Well, time is our most precious resource or our most precious entity as teachers. And one of the things that Katy and I were so excited about in terms of the writing a book about talk is that chalk is cross-curricular. And the purposes and the strategies that we teach in the book allow teachers to invest in teaching talk, but also that investment then pays off in reading and writing and science and social studies and the kind of community that we want to see in our classrooms.
Katy: And also I think it's Doug Reeves that talks about a school schedule is a moral document or an ethical document. So just like anything else, it's painful. Like we all wish we had more time for everything that could be amazing for kids. But in the end we all make decisions. And we're sort of arguing that one of the decisions that makes sense to make is allowing time for talk because of all the things Shauna said, all the ways that it impacts kids across content areas and across their lives, really. This is bigger than just the classroom. Even if that means that, yes, we're always going to give something up in order to fit something in.
Brett: You also really go into addressing the concern of messiness. And I think you brilliantly write about how you describe the unsettled feeling that is messiness. But also you write about how it's worth it. Why is that messiness and that unsettled feeling, why is it worth it?
Katy: Shauna's is looking at me to answer this because she's been to my house. She knows I value messiness. So I'll take that one. I do think it feels so good when things are perfect and neat and you've made the perfect anchor chart, you've got the perfect lesson. The kids all respond exactly the way we would hope. But we also all know that that ... Like how often does that really happen? Practically never. And it's easy to let that, especially when you're talking about talk because the kids don't get a script for the day. We can't tell them, ask this brilliant thought provoking question, here's some brilliant thought provoking answers that you could raise your hand and share.
So I think that's like a mental shift that we all as educators have to make to say it's not going to be perfect and that's inevitable. So we have to accept it. But also there's something, I think we talk in the book, think of all the messy things that are worth it. I had some tacos today that made a huge mess and they were totally worth it. Absolutely delicious. And that I think sometimes it's really hard, but both because it's inevitable and because it can be worth it to puzzle through the stuff that doesn't have easy answers.
Shana: And I just want to add on to that a little bit. Which is I feel like the best kinds of things come out of mess. And if we're always trying to keep everything neat and organized and in its place, then we never get that organic see where this goes. So I think having a little mantra of embrace the mess and thinking about mess in the most beautiful way is a nice way to move forward.
Brett: I love that.
Shana: In teaching and in life.
Brett: Oh, absolutely. I love that. I love that. And as I was sort of going through the book, you've got a section in part one under the foundations of talk about the cycle of talk. And you write about how great conversationalists follow a process. Can you talk a little bit about what that cycle of talk is and what that process looks like?
Shana: So we know that writers have a process and that they cycle through that process over and over again to create beautiful pieces of writing. And as Katy and I began our work in studying talk in classrooms with kids, in gatherings with educators, and then in our own life, there were some predictable phases. And one of the phases that aligns with the writing is just this collecting of ideas. That there's often what I refer to as like a popcorn phase where we're just pop, pop, popping with ideas and things that we could talk about.
And then there is, and Katy writes about that beautiful conversation she has with a colleague in the book. Then there's a phase that's kind of developing, where you've got an idea that you're thinking about and you're adding in all the information. And then eventually, after lots of talk around a topic, you can move into action and reflection. And it just makes a really nice way to think about talk not just as an individual event but a process that we can do over and over again.
Brett: One of the things I love that you sort of got into was you addressed the off-task behavior, the well-known off-task behavior. And you sort of challenge us to think differently about that. How do we reframe that idea of off-task behavior in our talk, in trying to bring in that out-of-school talk and balancing kids' interests?
Katy: Well I think one thing that I always try to remind myself and talk about with teachers that I work with is if you think about a typical staff meeting at whatever job you have, and this can of course be sort of funny because sometimes you're off task in a way that is distracting. So not to say that that's always good. But in reality, of course, you sit down for a meeting and generally there's a period of small talk and sometimes there's a joke and people kind of break the ice. Things get tense or slip into something personal and then come back to the topic at hand. And I feel like that's a pretty common pattern across lots of career fields, professional things that we're always telling kids when you're in college or when you're in the workforce, you won't be able to get away with this.
But in fact we all get away with it all the time. And I think the fact that, yes, we get away with it, I also don't think it's a bad thing. I mean we talk in the book a little bit about there's a reason that there's sort of this stereotype of business deals getting made on the golf course and so forth. Which I don't even know if that was ever true. I don't think we've ... Or I don't know. But at least according to television.
But I think that the stereotype is useful because we think about people making deals and how, what does playing golf have to do with like some real estate deal? Nothing. It's about building the relationship and honoring people's out-of-work or out-of-school lives. And I think with kids we can think the same thing. Like, why would I take a risk and share an idea I have about a book or about a scientific theory that could be wrong if the kid sitting next to me, I've never, like I have no reason to trust, I have no reason to think that they're not going to laugh behind my back or judge me?
So I think that it's about relationship building for kids as well as adults, that we're going to talk best with people that we have a relationship with. And also these social "off-task talks" are sort of the glue that brings communities together and brings colleagues, classmates, friends together in other ways, too.
Brett: I love how relationship building is sort of a central part of the book throughout every section. The book is broken down into three parts, the foundation of talk, the purposes for talk, and then leveling up your talk. Which I'm especially fond of because there's just a lot of good extra stuff in there. But throughout that you've just got a tremendous amount of really smart and easy to access strategies. And I recognize a couple of things that I really liked. You've got talk games that you talk about and then you even have one where you reference improv workshops. The yes, and. Talk a little bit about some of these strategies that you have throughout the book.
Shana: So I had a mentor who taught me that there were three four letter words that engage kids. Game, race, and food. And so we do in the book talk a lot about talk games. And there's a couple of ideas behind that. One is the idea that games are super engaging and kids love to play and talk should feel playful. But another is, for a lot of kids, the talk work that happens is too in the air. And so one of the things that the games that we use in the book do is they make talk visible. They make them concrete. We take an abstract concept and we make it visible for kids so they can see the work that they're doing in their talk to talk about relationships between ideas or to determine importance. So that's one of the things. And then Katy can talk a little bit more about the improv piece of things.
Katy: A little known fact about me if you didn't go to high school with me is one of the things I did in high school was I directed an improv troupe. And we performed in the Health and PE trailer every other Monday at lunch. Kind of a big deal. I don't know that our audience really numbered in the thousands, but it was a thing we did. And I've always loved improv. I did a lot of theater stuff growing up and in college and tried to bring that into my teaching, as well. And I think like any game, I think that one of the things about improv is that if you think, "Okay, I'm going to get up on a stage and I'm going to make something up that's funny to people, I'm going make people laugh." For a lot of people that is a terrifying prospect.
Like how would you do that? How would you just get up on stage and make something up? But the fact of putting rules or guidelines on it, like you never say no. Whatever your partner says you have to go with it. The yes, and rule. Or various structures that are put in place in the improv game actually allows for more creativity because it gives you some framework. Like soccer, if you could just sort of kick the ball anywhere and run down the street with the ball and then tuck it under your shirt and then put it in the goal. You could score a lot of goals, but it wouldn't really be much of a game. Sometimes the rules create the conditions for people's skill or creativity or talent to flourish.
And so, again, for some kids, and certainly one thing we do mention is that you can overuse games. But for some kids, for some talkers, for some adults, even, having some structures in place that give you a starting point makes it seem less like we're asking you to just sit down and out of the blue come up with a brilliant insight. But instead there's a structure in place that can give you the starting point.
Brett: I love that. I loved reading about all of those. I thought they were also brilliantly used and how you explain everything out. You also sort of address the probably concern for some, is you've got some students that are sort of over talkers and then you've got some of those students that are just sort of quiet and sort of fade into the back. How do you address sort of those two different styles of talking in the classroom?
Katy: One of the things that we talk about in the book is there's a whole section, I think you saw in chapter nine, of tackling talk trouble. And we try to address some of those personalities. And one of the things that actually our editor Zoe really helped us to work out was how I think a lot of times it's easy to say, well that's the quiet kid or that's the loud kid. And it isn't necessarily so much that kids could be put into categories of they're always quiet or they're always loud so much as in this particular situation, whether that's a whole class discussion or a science lab group or a book club or whatever, that kid is being quiet or loud in that particular day and time.
And so thinking about it as more fluid talk behaviors is one thing. That there are strategies that you can use to coach kids or to coach yourself to choose to speak up more or to speak up less, I guess, or to make room in the conversation for others. So I do think that's a big part of it is realizing it's not like an inherent personality trait, but that it's a pattern and that you can decide to use a strategy to help you change that pattern when and if you want to or when and if you as the teacher want to teach that.
So for example, if you have a kid who does talk a lot and maybe is sort of seen as an over talker, I think there's a real danger in being like, okay, so and so, you only get to talk three times today. Because that kid probably rightly feels well, I'm carrying the conversation here. I'm helping you out, teacher. I'm doing a good thing here. And feeling kind of shut down a little peeved about that.
Shana talks about a great, one technique that she's used for that that's been really helpful is to just separate the groups by that. You've got four kids who seem like over talkers at the moment. Great. You guys are like raring to go. So why don't you have, you continue your conversation over in this corner. I'm going to take everybody else over to this corner of the room. So you're not necessarily slowing down the flow of the kids who are in the flow, but then you're sort of forcibly making some space for the kids who aren't in the flow yet.
Brett: I kind of want to go back to talking about the messy for a moment. Because the book is packed with lots of great videos where we can kind of see you both in the moment sort of working with students and sort of practicing a lot of the things and modeling a lot of the things that are in the book. But one of the things that you really stress in your writing, and I sort of see this immediately in the video, is being uncomfortable with silence and not jumping in to save moments. Help people sort of understand why that silence and being uncomfortable with that silence is so important.
Shana: Actually, getting comfortable with the silence. I think that we sometimes forget as teachers how complex it is what we're asking kids to do. I'm always struck by the fact that sometimes kids just need some think time. They need some processing time. And we need to allow for that. And it's okay for there to be some quiet. Sometimes I'll just voice over kids and I'll be like, "I can tell you're really thinking hard about this and you're getting ready." Like just the faith and the belief that they will have something to say and that something will be beautiful.
I also think the idea of understanding that we can use a partner as a vehicle for rehearsal. So when no one's feeling comfortable talking whole class, to say, "Hey, just turn and share your ideas that you're thinking about with your partner and then we'll restart." Or that we can use our writing as a way. That the book is just full of ways to like, okay, whatever's happening, great. Here are different things that you can try to support your students in getting their thoughts and their ideas and their feelings out into the world.
Katy: And I think also with the messiness idea, too, as much as we want to embrace the mess, sometimes it's not as messy as it feels or seems in the moment. A lot of times, even when I'm presenting to adults, I will say to them, "I'm working on my wait time." If I ask even adults a question, think about such and such, turn and tell your partner, and it's silent, it's an incredibly awkward moment. And you start to run through all the worst case scenarios in your head of like, "Oh my gosh, the whole rest of this presentation is based on this turn and talk. What's going to happen here?" But if you actually were to pull out a stopwatch or you check your phone, you check the time, it's 30 seconds of silence, maybe a minute. It feels like an hour, but it isn't. And a lot of times in classrooms, one of the things that we'll do together is we'll actually pull out phone then time and say, "Okay, we're just going to let it be for one minute or two minutes or whatever."
And it feels incredibly uncomfortable. But to the kids, it doesn't seem weird at all. They're thinking. It's just time, literally one minute, out of their lives, out of their day. So sometimes it feels incredibly messy and like a failure, but to anyone observing on the outside it would be totally normal and not even a blip.
When you were mentioning the sort of purposes for talk, I think one thing that as I've been looking back at the book and talking to colleagues about it is that talking to report piece. That we start off saying all anyone wants to do initially is like, here's what I know, here's what I learned. But there are times when we want to build relationships in our talk and then there's times when let's settle down to business and let's analyze this, or let's report out some information. And so I think that's another big piece for me, the idea that there's all kinds of purposes and none of them are bad or good, but they all have their place and they all have their time.
Brett: Well, and that reminds me of a spot. You write about talking to clarify, analyze, and argue. And you write, you both write that within that is where the academic gold is. But you also say it's hard to teach and it's hard to coach. So how should that kind of talk be approached?
Shana: Well, you mentioned earlier, Brett, the videos that come with the book. And I actually think the whole book is worth seeing Katy teach the math debate. I think the idea of setting kids up to do this work of taking questions that are messy, that aren't clear cut. And having them state a claim and provide reasons and evidence that go with that claim. And get in conversation with others about it. And then to expect to be changed by that conversation is, I think in some ways, some of the highest level work the book does.
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Shana Frazin is a former classroom teacher and currently Co-Director of the TCRWP Classroom Libraries Project and Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She has led leadership groups on strong readers and higher level comprehension as well as taught institutes on the teaching of reading, writing, and content area. Prior to joining the Project, Shana taught third, fourth, and fifth grades in Pasadena and Los Angeles Unified School districts, and was a faculty member at Pacific Oaks College. You can find her on Twitter at @sfrazintcrwp
As a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Katy Wischow supports elementary and middle schools not only in New York City but also across the nation and the world. She has been an adjunct instructor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, teaching graduate courses in literacy education. Katy earned her MA in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College and taught for many years in Newark, NJ. Katy is passionate about curriculum development, using the arts to develop literacy, and creating strong cultures of talk in classrooms. She is on Twitter at @kw625