Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Creating Conversation

I’ve been trying so hard lately to be quiet. I’m sure if you know me well, you might be laughing at that idea. I do tend to talk. A lot. So this is a bit of a challenge, to say the least. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to mini-lessons of late. They typically go something like this.

Thinking about a given topic that I want to cover, I create a mini-lesson. Often it is built around a shared text (usually articles or picture books.) I share the text, we have a discussion. I ask questions, kids raise their hands and respond. We turn and talk at various points. Wrap up. End.

I don’t think my lessons are awful, but I’ve been mulling over two ideas. I forget who said it, but someone tweeted that if we are only asking questions that we already know the answer to, we aren’t asking the right questions. Stop. Pause. Hmm. Then I read more about our new evaluation model and knew that I needed the kids to be driving the conversation, not me. They needed to be leading the conversation; I needed to be there, of course, but not always the one in charge. How the heck was I going to do that?

This might be old hat to some of you, but a lot was new to me. And what is happening in my classroom right now is soooooooo far from perfect; I wouldn’t even want you to come watch. We’re trying, though.

We started with a chart and created a list of “rules” for our conversations – what they called it – during mini-lessons. Some rules they had were:

·      Be respectful – let everyone talk.
·      Try not to dominate the conversation.
·      Ensure you talk once (at least) per mini-lesson.
·      Try and build off of the comments of our classmates.

With those in place, we began. The first day they seemed to focus mostly on reminding each other to put their hand down. Each day has improved, each day I find another frustration. I love this and hate it. I love that the conversations seem to take a life of their own. That the students take off in a direction I didn’t see. I hate that I still have students who aren’t participating. My shy and reserved students don’t seem to sense that they can jump in, and I have tried and tried to encourage them, but no luck.

I remind myself that change takes time. The kids, for the most part, seem to really enjoy our mini-lesson conversations. Today, for the first time, I saw some payoff.

I always have my own homeroom for reading first. Honestly, I know this group the best,love them dearly, and they are the chattiest of all three classes. I had selected a new picture book to share today, Bob Staake’s Bluebird. The book had arrived at my house last night, I cried as I read it, and immediately decided to change my plans to share it today.

I placed the picture book under my document camera and opened it. I explained to my group that the book was wordless and we’d talk about it after looking through the story. They had no part of that plan.

From the first page I could hardly squeeze a word in to their running commentary. I thought I’d take them through the story; point out some items I noticed. Instead they immediately began sharing their opinions –

Look, who is that boy?

Oh no – those kids are bullies, aren’t they?

Yep, look at them teasing him in that picture.

Does the boy know the bluebird is there?

I think the bird knows he needs a friend.

Are we in New York?

Then, later…

He’s scared.

How do you know that? (From another student)

Look at his eyes, they’re huge.

Mrs. S., the light around him changes when he’s happy or when he’s afraid.

The coloring of this book reminds me of Babymouse – one color pops.

And on, and on.

They pointed out things to each other as we wove our way through, connecting, inferring, predicting, questioning. All things I normally would have prompted, but there was no need. The gasp at the end of the book and the full silence showed their engagement. And this happened with all three classes of fifth graders today.

So, we’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. I have no idea if I’m going about this in the right way. That being said, today was fun. I love that they took me somewhere different than I planned. That I really wasn’t in charge of the lesson, they were. I think that taught me more than I realized.