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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Everyone Involved: Sparking Conversation in the Classroom

Conversation in the classroom is important because it helps students to expand, clarify, and apply their growing knowledge base.  How do teachers engage all students through this guided conversation?  One way is to move from general to specific.  Begin the conversation with a general comment.  "Tell me something about...."  By starting general, students have a wider range for participation.  They also can activate their thinking and have the chance to call up stored information.  Students who do not typically participate in conversation have more opportunities to get involved. 

Here's a brief conversation that moves students from general to specific. 

Teacher:  We have been learning about the most important document in our country, the US Consititution.  What can you tell me about this document?
Student:  It was written a long time ago.
Teacher:  Yes, that's correct.  What else can you tell me about the Constitution?
Student 2:  It is sort of the "rule book" for the United States.  It tells us what the national government can do and what the states can do?
Teacher:  That's a very interesting thought?  What "rules" can you think of?" (Beginning to move the disucssion to more specific information).
Student 3:  How about the rules for the 3 branches of government? 
Teacher:  I am glad you brought those up because we are going to be spending the next few days on learning how the 3 branches of government work together.  We are actually going to form those 3 branches in the classroom.  Who remembers what those 3 branches are? 
The conversation continues with the teacher guiding students deeper into the foundation of the US democracy. 

How do we differentiate instruction through conversation?  Let's think about our students who have already breezed past the beginning concepts of the US Constitution and are already thinking about its application.  While guiding the conversation, the teacher may want to bring up such questions as, "If the Constitution were written today how would the use of technology shaped the development of the Constitution?"  Or, we have some countries in the world today that are developing their own Constitution for the first time.  How could our Constitution be an example for them?  So, we can exapand our questions to include students who are ready to apply their knowledge.  As we move in this direction, we can promote additional participation, by asking students to discuss the question with a partner first. 

How can we promote conversation with students who are hesitant or who have a limited understanding?  Jumpstarting that conversation with partners is always helpful.  Pictures and other visual images are very helpful to sparking ideas for discussion.  Take the time to review some new vocabulary that may have been used the day before.  Or, for individual students, have a private conversation with them as they enter the room.  Let them know the class will be discussing the branches of government and you are counting on the student to share that the Executive Branch includes the President of the United States. 

Classroom discussion is an important way to enhance the thinking and learning of all students.   Skillful teachers who use this technique will increase student participation.  One thought for you, how does the use of technology enhance our ability to guide discussion and learning?