Middle schoolers think they are experts at talk. They know how to suck up, talk back, gossip, shout, tease, and spout excuses. But the language of the first speaking and listening standard describes something different – accountable talk. Students must:
Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
For our middle school teachers this boils down to figuring out what accountable talk looks like and what our students should be talking about. What it looks like is pretty well described in the subheadings of the standards, which read like an outline for mini-lessons in readers workshop.
- Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
- Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
- Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
- Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views in light of the evidence presented.
Book Clubs (aka literature circles) are often the launching pad for engaging students in accountable talk at our school. Here’s how they work.
- The librarian book gives a lively introduction to eight to twelve novels at a variety of reading levels. In eighth grade they might be on a World Geography or a Washington State History topic or a social issue. Because we are a standards based grading school, students note which books are complex enough to allow them to do exceeding standard work.
- Students fill out a ballot with their top three choices and the teacher uses their input to form groups of four of five. Students meet to set their reading schedule and group norms. Book clubs typically meet twice a week for two weeks.
- Mini lessons help students respond to the reading and come to their book club discussion prepared with questions and ideas written in their reading notebooks. As the year progress, the mini lessons push students toward increasingly higher level thinking work.
- Nonfiction reading as a class or during individual research time provides ways to connect book club reading to real events.
- Teachers invite other adults – the librarian, special education teachers, tutors – to listen in and take notes when book clubs meet. These extra adults listen take and take notes on the contributions of each student, jotting down questions asked and answered, evidence presented, evidence analyzed, symbolism discovered, and all the other discussion moves the class is working toward. These notes are shared with students after the discussion.
What ideas are important enough to spark focused, memorable conversation? Books on these topics have pulled our students into vivid, meaningful talk.
What is it like to grow up someplace others than the U.S.?
What did westward expansion look like to Native Americans?
Why did the U.S. intern Japanese Americans?
Drug and alcohol abuse.
Bullying and harassment
If we want our students to have powerful conversations we need to give them the tools to make claims, support them with evidence, revise their ideas, and listen to each other. Then we need to put books in their hands that are full of ideas worth talking about.
Want more ideas on ways to encourage accountable talk? Kelly recently reflected on the ways students in her fourth grade classroom are working to master the speaking and listening standards. Her post followed Tom’s account of engaging his fourth graders in thoughtful discussion via blogging about a mystery story.
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