Eyes Open Moment: Let the Kids Talk

Eyes Open Moment: Let the Kids Talk

We’ve said goodbye to our students and we are heading back upstairs to our rooms. I turn to you and say, “My students like to talk… a lot!”  What sentiments are behind this statement? 

They like to talk a lot — They have ideas to express; They are comfortable verbalizing their thoughts. 

They like to talk a lot — It’s hard to get their attention; They are noisy during independent work. 

Talk is a component of every classroom at every age, yet it remains elusive. You can’t dispute the need for discussion. However, in practice, talk and expectations around talk, remain largely at the discretion of the teacher. Often in response to their own comfort with student voice as it relates to classroom management. 

I am aware of my own bias around talk. I was a conscientious student, but surely loquacious (a vocabulary word I remember embracing as I studied for the SATs). I liked to talk with my friends. I liked to share my thoughts in class. As an adult, I still talk in my sleep. 

I recognize that speaking helps me to process my thoughts. It is my comfort zone, but this is not true of every learner. The classroom has taught me to be a more intent listener. It’s forced me to think about the role of my voice in any setting. Expressing thoughts is a necessary skill that all people need to develop. In order to make deliberate choices about talk in the classroom, I had to clarify my beliefs. For me, a foundational belief is that before we can teach strategies for talk that support academic understanding, we must first establish that talk as a process of building social connection and community.  

One of the primary ways we build relationships is through telling stories. We hear it in the familiar chatter that proceeds a staff meeting. Teachers connect over the recipe they cooked last night, they inquire about last weekend’s activities, or share opinions about the TV series they are watching. Talking about our lives helps us to know each other. 

This type of talk also has great value in our own teaching spaces. Students get to know each other by sharing information about their lives. So it helps to think strategically about how to recognize this need, and build in the time for students to tell their own stories, for the sole purpose of connecting with their peers. 

We also need to recognize that this way of connecting will be more comfortable for some students than for others. While I do enjoy talking, I am familiar with the nerves that bubble in my stomach before I need to mingle in an unfamiliar social setting - a meeting where I do not have any known colleagues, or a party where I’m not familiar with many guests. 

Additionally, we are emerging from a few educational years when our talk was hindered by protections against Covid. We did our best to connect on screens in the absence of feeling the real time energy of sharing physical space. We tried to talk through masks, and across social distance, which muffled voices and strained our listening. Our need for social talk is more important than ever. We are all out of practice. 

Building a comfort in social talk is fundamental to all other types of academic discourse we will embark across the year. It helps to plan for a variety of entry points, just like we do in our academic areas. Here are some things to consider: 

  • Ask direct questions: What is your favorite thing to do at home and why? Would you rather swim or fly and why? 
  • Ask questions that give opportunity for a more open response: Tell us about someone who makes you laugh. Describe something that makes you feel proud. 
  • Try a variety of sharing structures: Whole group, with partners of your choice, with partners who are assigned, in small groups, etc. 
  • Give ample wait time: The amount of time needed to process will vary from student to student. Creating wait time in any scenario communicates our belief that we are in search of thoughtful responses, not fast responses.

The information we learn about our students also allows us to take steps to deepen these connections. What benefits might come from placing a group of kids who have shared interests (video games, graphic novels, athletics, love of dogs) at the same table for an academic activity? Can we help foster deeper connections during lunch time by asking students to select someone to sit with whom they wanted to get to know better, or providing some discussion questions to get everyone talking?  

“My students like to talk a lot!”  is a good thing! Before students can talk a lot about an academic area, they need to feel comfortable enough to talk a lot about their own lives. Make plans to forge social connections, and know it's the foundation for the academic talk you’ll develop across the year. 

What routines are in place to foster authentic social talk in your classroom?