Recently I had the opportunity to read Kara Pranikoff’s Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Conversation and Thinking which questions the traditional practices of classroom talk and asks teachers to re-think their role in that talk.
As teachers we know that conversation is a way students construct meaning and Pranikoff urges teachers to let students to become increasingly independent in their talk. She explains how the ultimate goal in larger-group conversations is for students to simply speak when they have something to say…like in the social talk at recess or at the end of the day when students are at their lockers. In these settings, students do not require an adult to mediate or monitor their discussion. This needs to be transitioned to the academic setting if the goal is for students to take ownership and control over their own learning. This transition is hindered when classroom talk is always in the form of student-teacher-student as the message sent here is that students’ ideas need to be vetted by the teacher, who is in control of the talk and therefore the meaning making that occurs.
After reading this book, I was invited to the classroom of my friend and colleague Michelle Wuest. Her students were going to be involved in a Socratic Seminar, which she defines as a “collaborative, intellectual dialogue facilitated with open-ended questions about a text.” She provided sample questions for interpreting the text, sample questions for moving the discussion along, explained the structure, the protocols for the seminar, and a list of prompts to help her students prepare for the seminar. (See image).
What I observed during this class was exactly what Pranikoff calls for in her book. Students spoke directly to each other, and instead of raising their hands and waiting for a teacher to call on them, they spent time considering the thinking of their classmates. They helped each other clear up confusion and the questions they asked sparked discussion that was of interest to them, not their teacher. Throughout the Socratic Seminar, students were engaged, respectful and thoughtful. By having students sit in a circle as opposed to their desks, the communal space that Pranikoff deems as essential for whole-class conversations was built.
And most inspiring of all was seeing how this student-driven talk built a community of learners inside a diverse classroom.