Let Them Talk: Making Space for Student Conversations in the Classroom

It’s early May, deep in the heart of testing season. Twenty-two middle school students sit at desks arranged in a half circle closed just tightly enough so they see each other and the question displayed on the board at the front of the room: “Are cell phones making people less intelligent?” A student surges to his feet behind his desk, indicating his intention to speak, and then asserts his point. Another student stands and, when his classmate is finished, offers  his own perspective: “After hearing what [Student Name] has said, I want to agree, but also add…” 


As the conversation continues, students offer additions, contradictions, rebuttals, and counterarguments, each preceded carefully by statements like, “I would like to agree with…”, “I would like to respectfully disagree with…”, “I want to add…”, and more. The teacher stands quietly by, keeping track of the flow of conversation on her clipboard,  nodding encouragingly when a student falters in their response, smiling when a normally reticent student finally jumps into the conversation. After ten minutes, the discussion comes to an end, as students conclude that – as with most things – the question is more complicated than they initially thought. 


As an instructional coach, I am fortunate to witness wonderful teaching moments marked by genuine student interest, productive struggle, collaboration, and inquiry. Lately, I notice that many of these moments are also accompanied by the same thing: student talk. 


At my school, we emphasize the importance of academic discussion, and our protocols of Accountable Talk, in every part of our school culture. It’s a part of our school-wide Instructional Model, of the rubric by which teachers are evaluated, and of the Key Design Elements on which our school mission is founded. It is also part of our mandate, as Massachusetts educators, in the Common Core for learning standards from Pre-K to Grade 12: Participate and engage in collaborative discussion (SL1).


Starting in 6th grade, our students begin learning the routines that form the foundation of positive and productive academic discussion. We lean on the protocol of Accountable Talk, in which students are expected to participate and interact in structured discussions invoking response stems (“I agree with…”, “I disagree with…”, “I’d like to add on that…”) and expect students to use them. At the middle school level, students stand at their seats or call on each other to add their thoughts. At the high school level, the scaffolds fall away and students regulate their own participation, speaking casually from their seats at appropriate pauses, rather than waiting to be called upon. By senior year, we aim to evoke the atmosphere of the college seminar room with students wrestling with complex questions amongst themselves, asking their own questions, and debating their own answers, all with little intervention from the teacher. 


Those of us who taught during those frightening pandemic years remember well the black Zoom boxes, the muted microphone symbols, the terrible silence that followed in the wake of our questions. Coming out on the other side of those virtual and hybrid years, in the classes I observe and in the students I teach, I see more than ever the impact of that silence on our students. At my school, we continue to rebuild our culture of academic discussion, but I am comforted by the sound of student voices in these spring weeks and by the teachers crafting questions and planning discussions for the next school year. 


Michaels, S. O’Conner, C., & Williams-Hall, M.C., with Resnick, L.B. (2010). Accountable Talk sourcebook: For classroom conversation that works., Pittsburgh, PA: Institute for Learning, University of Pittsburgh. http://ifl.pitt.edu/index.php/educator_resources/accountable_talk 

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