Sunday, September 8, 2013

Talking It Out

One of my favorite quotes is by James Britton:

"Reading and writing float on a sea of talk."

One could go so far as to say "Learning floats on a sea of talk."  'Cause it does.

This is one of those things I wish I had realized early in my career.  I would have been a much better teacher way-back-when if I would have remembered how much better I understood the content teachers were trying to teach when I was able to talk about it with others.

Case in point:  My senior year of high school I decided to join the debate team.  Many of my friends were debaters, and I knew they got to travel to tournaments on weekends, and it seemed like they were having a good time.  I already had enough credits to graduate, so I thought why not?  What I thought would be a fun class turned out to be one of the hardest classes I had in my entire four years of high school.  The work load was tremendous.  Not only did I have to do research with my partner to build our own affirmative case, we had to research rebuttal arguments to OTHER affirmative cases.  The topic that year was American farm policy.  I learned more about grain elevator accidents, factory farming, and other agricultural topics than I ever thought was possible.  The thing that made me TRULY understand all of these topics, though, was TALKING about them in the course of the debates.

So why, then, as a young teacher, did I replicate most of my English classes, where students sat in rows, read the books that I told them to read, and answered questions that I already knew the answers to and expected them to read my mind?

Simple... I didn't know there was another way.

Fast forward about ten years and a whole lot of learning and reading.  I began to realize that I wasn't filling my students with a love of reading and writing.  If anything, I was teaching them that reading a novel was the equivalent of an eight-week-long worksheet.

I realized that I needed to capitalize on the adolescent need to SOCIALIZE to really engage students in my classes and cement their learning.  More and more, we know that students need time to talk with each other to process their thoughts and work through new ideas.  Talking with others provides the time and opportunity to hear other people's ideas, to ask questions, to reconsider and reformulate.  When we give kids time to talk after they read a text and before they write, the writing they produce is more coherent, better developed, and goes to greater depth.

As a literacy coach, I am constantly talking about talk, working with teachers to show them the power of conversation, to help them notice the ratio of teacher talk to student talk in their classrooms.  

Amazing things happen when classrooms are full of the buzz of purposeful talk.