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Classroom Conversations - Let's Talk About Talking


Can we talk about talking?  When I first started teaching I really thought that I needed to be THE source of information and learning for my students.  I needed to be the one to TELL them everything that they needed to know.  My classes should be me talking and them sitting quietly marveling at my awesomeness and hanging on my every word. 
Quit laughing.

I really thought that a vibrant classroom with students engaged might look like that.  Anyway, that didn't last long.    As a music teacher and as music students, our art is SOUND and takes place in time.  Class discussions are great, but they can interfere with our listening skills and often impede music making if they are off topic or chaotic.

My problem was that I wasn’t directing students into the kinds of conversations that I wanted them to have and when they started talking, I didn’t have a great way to keep the focused.

Things I Tried That Really Stunk

Yelling Over the Students – Uhm…yeah.  I’m loud.  I have teacher voice and I know how to use it.  What happened?  My voice was tired, sometimes hoarse and the kids merely paused and continued talking.

Standing in Angry Teacher Mode, Lips Pursed and WAITING for Students to Be Quiet – Woo hoo!  A break for my voice and buh-bye to my lesson plans.  I mean, these kids would NEVER understand that I was waiting for them to get quiet.  I should have just sat down and had a sandwich.

Writing Names on the Board – McKenzie.  Mackenzie.  Mackinzie.  Dillon. Dylan. Dyllon.  Jordan.  Jordin.  Jordanne.  See where I’m going?  And it just seemed unprofessional for me to yell “YOU!  YOU!  Spell your name and then be quiet!” 

Can you relate to trying these?  With some groups they worked, but nothing worked with every group.

Things I Tried that Really Rocked

 Echo Clap – Shut up!  I know it is as old as the hills, but it is magic!  I can shut down an entire gym of screaming kids by clapping “ta ta titi ta” and staring at them.  My first year I started teaching all of my classes that this was their “return to the mother ship” call.  When I clapped this rhythm their job was to 1) Stop what they are doing. 2) Echo clap back.  3) Silently put their eyes on me and await my instructions.  I made it a point to always clap the same rhythm because we clap a great deal in music class and I wanted it to stand out.

Let Them Talk – No, really.  Why not give them time to discuss things with each other?  In music much of our preferences are influenced by our friends and family.  Learning to defend our choices or being open to trying new things are important skills.  Having conversations about musical choices and experiences gives students a chance to use music terminology, make comparisons and synthesize information.

Things to Do in Your Classroom

1.     Recognize that learning conversations are essential.  
Years ago I took some training about Instructional Practices Inventories.  Essentially this is a way to identify how engaged students are in classrooms.  One of the best, higher order thinking, categories that behavior could fall into is called “Student Learning Conversations”.  These conversations could be facilitated by the teacher, but were NOT teacher led or dominated.  For the conversations to be “successful”, demonstrating higher order thinking skills was necessary.  You can read more about IPI here.

2.       Students need you to model acceptable ways of having learning conversations.
You need to model ways to participate in a group conversation.  I do this by asking students a question and then gently nudging them to use group discussion skills.  Here’s an example:

Me:  After reading this article about John Williams, how do you think his advice about choosing a career relates to your life?
Joey: I think his music rocks.  I can totally relate.
Me:  When talking about music we like, try use more descriptive words than “rocks”.  Do you agree with him that becoming good at something takes practice?
Joey:  I agree with him because I’m learning to play soccer and it takes a lot of practice.
Me: Great!  Is there anyone that disagrees with Mr. Williams?  Would you explain why?
Shirley: Some people have dumb luck.
Me:  Shirley, when adding to the conversation be sure to give us clues about what you are disagreeing about by saying something like “I disagree because…” or “I don’t agree.  I think…”  What were you saying?
Shirley:  I disagree because I think some people are just lucky.

Whenever a student says something "rocks" or "sucks" they get the same kind of response.  "Let's try to use more descriptive words." or "Let's use smarter words to describe our opinions.  Why do you feel that way?"

I have a new bulletin board that is REALLY going to be helpful for modeling conversations and discussion techniques.  This board is called “Let’sTalk” and features many phrases that students can use when participating in large or small group conversations.



The categories are:
When You Agree
When You Disagree
When You Need Help or More Information
When You Cite Evidence
When You Make a Connection
When You Want to Include Someone

and four tips for being a good listener.


This will probably end up on my wall where I can refer to it all year.  It will be easy to prompt students by saying "If you agree, look at the discussion wall for ideas about expressing your opinion."  When I do centers, I actually have one where students just talk the entire time.  I may print this out a little smaller and put it in that area.  If you are using Adobe Reader, you can learn more about printing multiple sheets on one page HERE.

3.  Give Them Something to Talk About
I do this in a couple of ways.  I may show them an interesting video with a unique musical performance and then ask them a question about it.  I might have a series of discussion questions printed out or written on the board for talk time after reading an article.  When rotating through centers I use Talk About Tunes.

This is a set of 30 discussion starters with questions like "Who is your favorite musician and why?" or "What was the last musical you watched? Did you like it?  Why or why not?"

4.  Practice Procedures.
Practice procedures for gaining the attention of your class.  I recommend the magic clap, but you may also use a gong or another instrument or maybe a silent signal.  Whatever you choose, practice it with your students.   Practice procedures for making small groups.  (See this post about a fun way to do that.)  Practice procedures for sharing small group solutions with the whole group.

Don't be afraid.  It's okay for students to talk in your class.  It is essential that students share ideas and learn networking skills.  Your classroom is the perfect place to start!




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1 comment:

  1. Great post! I frowned upon the echo clap for awhile, but it is the most effective way I've found to get their attention. :)

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