Let’s Talk about Discourse – Part 1

Discourse seems to be one of those school words.  In the real world we talk about
something – but in schools we have discourse.  Kind of like the word tardy – no one uses it in real life.  And I’m not a fan of the word, like the word moist, however, I love what it means.  But I digress…

It’s interesting to me how the nature of conversation has changed in society.  I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my best friends – talking about all the things tween girls talk about.  My heart sinking to my feet when my mom would call that a boy was on the phone for me – and taking the phone in my room and closing the door.

That’s all but gone now.  Everything is done by text.  The vast majority of my daughter’s communication to her friends is through social media and technology.  My son had spent an inordinate amount of time talking to a girl… with never speaking a word.  And in this world – efficiency is king and words, thoughts, ideas, are all boiled down to 12o characters or less.  And if speech = thinking, then we are allowing our kids to truncate their minds.

Often schools are the only place where kids today will talk to each other – really talk.  And if we want to expand their minds we need to allow them.   And the beauty of it is -it really works!

FYI – Hyperlinks will take you to a good resource for more information on that particular topic.

Not all Talk is Equal

Let’s be clear what we are talking about when we refer to discourse.  I’m not referring to just having kids talk in class, although that is a key part.  It’s the kind of talking they are doing that is important.  Share your answer is not discourse.  Explain how you came up with your answer and having your partner share theirs is.  Repeat what I just said is not discourse, explain in your own words is and your partner asking questions is. If you are going to take the time to allow kids to talk, make sure it is meaningful and purposeful and that above all else – it gets them thinking and then communicating about what they think.

Building a Conversation Culture

I always start building the skill of discourse in my classroom with direct instruction on how to turn-and-teach.  Or turn-and-share.  Or turn-and-justify.  Notice the and-something is a verb that describes what I want them to do.  Not just talk.  This happens on Day 1 of the year and I utilize Whole Brain Teaching strategies for this, but with my own spin to make it work for not just Turn-and-teach.

The next step is to expand it away from partners into literature circles.  My favorite technique is Laura Candler’s Talking Sticks.   I began using them with literature circles and found this technique to be highly effective.  She also has great information how to conduct classroom book clubs, which are a great introduction to more discourse. Just a side – I have never been a huge fan of Literature Circles with roles, especially where everyone has just one role (I have in the past done them where each person does a little of everything).  I feel it becomes a literature scavenger hunt and that it does not promote good conversation.  This is why I like Laura’s approach.  The concept behind that is that each child has 2 sticks, and put it in the circle each time they speak.  When they are out, they can’t talk until everyone has put in a stick – then they all come back out again.  (In my room – clarifying questions are free and the discussion director can ask someone a question without putting in a stick).  This way all kids are required to be engaged, but in a way of their choosing.  (And by now – we don’t even use those.)

But this didn’t happen at once.  I directly instructed.  I fishbowled.  I set them up for success.  We first started practicing good conversations moves with a partner, then expanded our circle.  For my strugglers I gave them cards with conversation moves on them that they could look at and use.  And don’t worry – eventually they will develop into a more conversational style – but start them with their hands on 10 & 2 on the steering wheel.

The secret to success to starting them is giving them something they are really excited to talk about.  In my room I introduce this process during a “Mystery vs. Mysterious”reading unit with Chris VanAllsburg books.  They LOVE talking about what they think really happened – did Fritz really get turned into a goose in the Garden of Abul Gasazi?  Who is The Stranger?  Because it’s open to interpretation – they really have an opportunity to put forth their opinions and defend them with the text.

In math, I begin creating a Discourse Culture by introducing them to the Number Talks routine as part of my whole group instruction time.  A Number Talk is a short conversation with the class – mostly about computation and mental math Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Grades K 5, Updated with Common Core Connection by Sherry Parrish is the resource that I use, but there are others as well.

Math Moves

Once we have begun to show some skill with text talk and Number Talks, we quickly expand to even more math discourse.  We know the routine of talking in a group from reading and we’re used to explaining our mathematical thinking from Number Talks.  Now we put that together.

In truth – my math block is often more verbal than my reading.  I teach them math conversation moves that are similar to text talk moves, but tweaked for math.   I also find math lends itself to even more casual conversations than reading tends to do.  In addition to math talk, often they will work on a Brain Stumper  with a partner as arrival morning work or a rotation station.  We also play a game where they don’t know who in their group is going to be called on to answer a question, so they have to work together to make sure everyone understands. After they have finished Independent Practice, I’ll tell them to find a partner, compare answers, and if they’re different – talk it out to see who is right.

Conversations in Guided Groups

 In the conversation above, the kids are discussing the question “How does Chris Van Allsburg create a suspenseful mood?”  Our driving question for the whole unit was “What makes a story mysterious?” We had been talking about the fact that a mystery is solved, but the mysterious leaves you questioning.

My favorite is when I use discourse for their guided group time.  I’m a member of their discussion circle, but not the leader of it.  I can pose guiding and prompting questions but let them take over.

I can also differentiate the discussion to their level.  For example – on a lesson on introducing elapsed time I had my kiddos that find math a challenge just talk about which math tools would be best suited for the solving this type of problem.  They tried different ones – weighed the pros and cons – and then shared with each other their thoughts on each math tool.  The figured out on their own not to use a calculator, that a Judy Clock works great – and that they can solve using a number line.  For my on-grade group we solved a problem and shared what strategies we used.  For my high-flyers  – they solved a more complex problem, but also got into a discussion of adding time and regrouping minutes and hours.  In reading I might have my lower group talk about which evidence do they think supports the theme that we came up with together, my on-grade group might start with us together talking about events in the story and then they talk to figure out the together, and my high-flyers might come up with the theme and the evidence on their own while I sit and enjoy.

There are times in reading when I’ve had to get up from group to attend to an issue on the other side of the room.  The kiddos just keep talking.  They are running their own reading group!

So…. where is the guided in guided groups during discourse?  And what really keeps them talking?   I’ll talk about that next time!