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Natural Conversations

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

To delve into students' views, the Greek philosopher, Socrates, would ask questions. He wanted them to challenge the things they were told and look beyond the obvious. I enjoy employing the socratic method because it makes learning more active, encourages attentive listening and enhances critical thinking skills. The classroom experience becomes a shared dialogue between teacher and students, and both are responsible for pushing the discussion forward. As a participant, the teacher must always be open to learning themselves.

Socratic inquiry isn't as much about facts, as it is about what one thinks about them. For example, students will learn their math facts. However, the correct answer isn't always the most illuminating aspect of teaching and learning mathematics. During our Math Talks, students describe how they arrived at an answer. They share their thinking. As the teacher, this helps me identify what they understand. So even if the student arrived at an incorrect answer, understanding their process is key to helping them learn how to derive the correct one. Since there are many ways to arrive at a correct answer, hearing another student's process may help others find a more efficient strategy! I also use inquiry to nudge students along in their computer science work. Rather than telling a student what's wrong, I'll often ask a probing question about their reasoning. It almost always illuminates where they've made a mistake. The student can move forward, having corrected their own error.

I've held socratic seminars with my 3rd and 4th grade students, but part of me always longed to reduce the need for hand raising with younger learners. I am mindful of notions of hierarchy and power differentials in our classroom. Students respect me because I respect them. We respect each other. At Marva Collins Cottage School, we embrace the ubuntu philosophy...I am because you are. Our classroom community fosters interconnectedness and a belief that we are defined by our compassion and kindness towards others. Thus, when we talk about acceptable choices in our classroom, we can always connect them back to our culture. We make thoughtful choices, versus mindlessly following 'rules'. We understand our whys. Embracing the African ubuntu philosophy and engaging in talking circles-- an Indigenous tradition based upon equality between participants and the principle of sharing power with each other, are two examples of what we mean when our website says "emphasis on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) stories and cultural conservation."

In July 2020, I attended a webinar with Kassia and Christy, co-authors of Hands Down Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math K-5. In their workshop, I witnessed 1st graders talking in community without raising their hands and I knew I'd found my solution! Hands Down Conversations are discussions that flow among students without the use of hand raising, and in which the teacher is not the primary speaker. They allow students to take greater leadership and have more decision making power. As facilitator, the teacher's voice is less present and the students' ideas are centered. You will hear students talking, asking questions, listening to reasoning, furthering each other's ideas and constructing meaning together. You may be wondering, "what about students who 'never' talk?" There have been studies on the silent and the vocal in whole class discussions. Researchers found that strong classroom discourse benefits those who participate verbally as well as those who do not. Most traditional classroom discourse follows the IRE pattern in which the teacher asks a questions (Initiate), students raise their hands to offer an answer (Respond), and the teacher decides if the answer is right or wrong (Evaluate). This traditional method of discourse positions the teacher as the primary source of knowledge, whereas hands down communities empower all members as competent and as having valuable ideas. Trust me, this is not an easy conquest! The IRE model is deeply ingrained in American educational culture. As teachers, we may find ourselves evaluating responses and praising those who share our thinking. Thus, students may find themselves offering answers in a game of 'who can repeat what the teacher is most likely thinking'...eeek! In this traditional classroom structure, knowledge is being performed for teacher approval, rather than constructed for learning.

The bottom line is-- our actions can empower or disempower student voices. As we endeavor to create communal learning in our PreK-2 classroom, there are several things I will continually ask myself:

  • Who is doing the talking? Not only do we need to be aware of how much the teacher is talking in comparison to students, we must also be mindful of inequity in student participation. Are English Language Learners offered easier questions? Are those who have performed well in the subject deferred to? Fortunately, the authors offer strategies to notice patterns of student participation and lessons that consider equitable participation and help students set goals for their community.

  • Am I taking a curious stance? If we want our students to be inquisitive and bold learners, we must model curiosity, taking risks and persevering through struggle. I, too, must be comfortable with uncertainty and making mistakes.

  • Am I balancing conversation and content? Some of us who grew up learning lecture-style, with the teacher starring as 'sage on the stage', may be reluctant to understand how student-led learning can effectively enhance student knowledge. As facilitator, I am carefully balancing content building with conversation skill development. In the book, the authors describe imagining a seesaw that tilts up and down under the weight of the children and sometimes suspends briefly in balance. This is a beautiful visual representation of student-led learning! Both goals are always present and of equal importance.

  • Am I building joint authority? The way I present my physical, listening and speaking self should be in a way that reduces the teacher's role as a position of power. If successful, I will notice students looking at each other rather than looking at me! In fact, this observation was exactly why I introduced socratic method to my 3rd grade students. I noticed that when students spoke, other students would look out of the windows or gaze across the room, but when I would speak, they would make eye contact. I wanted them talking to each other rather than jockeying for my approval. I knew I needed to adjust how we were interacting.

This Fall will be my first time exploring natural conversations with primary aged students. I am really jazzed about the lessons in this book! I am most excited about how Hands Down Conversations will reinforce equity in our classroom. If we believe all students are competent thinkers with valuable ideas, then our actions and behaviors will support that all students can contribute to academic conversations.

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