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Get the conversation going

I just read Kim Marshall’s synopsis of an article by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo  about ways to ways to get discussions going. Not surprisingly, if you just say “exactly,” in response to a participant’s comment, your affirmation may actually result in closing off the conversation. Oh no! Time to re-calibrate!

Rather, he offers a series of ways to create an environment in which participants affirm one another and build off each other’s comments.

“In this important Kappan article, Newark school leader/author Paul Bambrick-Santoyo describes a small-group discussion in a second-grade reading class. Four students and their teacher are reading Teamwork, a book by Dawn MacMillan about Karina, a girl who’s being teased and isn’t making friends and takes refuge in the school library during recess. When her teacher expresses concern, Karina lies, saying she’s going to the library to get an early start on her homework. Three of the students reading the book think that’s the real reason Karina is in the library, but one boy disagrees. “Karina went to the library because at the library no one was there but Mr. Walker and Karina,” he says. “So there were no kids in there trying to tease her.”

This is a pivotal moment for the teacher. She can say, “Exactly!” affirming the boy’s correct answer, which would elicit an immediate chorus of agreement from the other students as they piggyback on his thinking – or she can remain silent and get them doing the same high-level comprehension thinking the boy has done – and also make him justify his inference.

This teacher holds her tongue, and all four students dive in. “I disagree with you,” says one, “because Karina wanted to go to the library to finish her homework early.” Another girl says she thinks that too. A little hesitant, prompted by the teacher’s silence, the boy stands his ground: “But that wasn’t the big idea,” he says. “What’s the evidence?” asks the teacher. “On page six,” he says. The other students find the page. “It wasn’t the problem that she didn’t get her homework done early,” he says. “It was the problem that no one wants her on the team.” Slowly, the other students acknowledge the point and give a thumbs-up, the class signal for agreement.

“What are you thinking now?” the teacher asks one of the girls. “I changed my answer,” she says. “Now I agree, because when it said, ‘They don’t even want me on the team,’ that means the big idea is that they don’t even want her on the team, and she wants to be on the team, but they just don’t let her. So that’s why I agree.”

This was an example of skillful, restrained teaching, says Bambrick-Santoyo – not only because of what the teacher did and didn’t do on the spot, but because of what she had done in the weeks beforehand. In this brief discussion, students were doing most of the talking, and they all did the work needed to build strong comprehension skills. “[W]hen you change how students talk in class,” says Bambrick-Santoyo, “you change the way they think.”

In class discussions, he continues, teachers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. There are risks in letting students flounder around without getting into meaningful analysis – but there are equally great risks when the teacher takes over the discussion. “Avoiding those twin pitfalls,” says Bambrick-Santoyo, “requires harnessing the power of habit.” These are the habits he believes teachers must instill in their students week after week:

  • Speak audibly.
  • Speak in complete sentences.
  • Interact peer to peer.
  • Elaborate.
  • Build off others’ answers.
  • Evaluate others’ responses.
  • Praise your peers.
  • Use universal prompts with peers (e.g., “Tell me more.” “What in the story makes you think that?” “Why do you think that?” “Why is that important?”)
  • Don’t tell the answer – give a hint so another student can tell it.
  • The teacher should let students facilitate the discussion, and when students get off track, redirect.
  • The teacher should use written responses done during independent reading to guide the conversation.

The teacher in the anecdote above had introduced these skills one at a time, praised students when they used them and prompted them when they didn’t, and transitioned to nonverbal hand signals – for example, for “Speak in complete sentences”, the hand signal is pulling your fingers apart as if stretching a piece of gum. That’s why her students were addressing each other by name, evaluating each others’ answers, finding the evidence on a specific page in the book, and changing their minds.

“These students didn’t just dive into Teamwork and come up incredibly lucky,” says Bambrick-Santoyo. “They were applying their best habits of literary discussion to the text… Students can only build off each other’s responses if they can hear each other. They can only evaluate a speaker’s response if they can wait for the original speaker to finish talking. And it’s amazing how quickly they learn to prompt one another with universal prompts when you’ve prompted them, over and over, to add detail or evidence to their own responses.”

“In discussions built on the foundation of great habits,” concludes Bambrick-Santoyo, “students blossom into their own as speakers, listeners, and thinkers. And when they need those skills even more – in whatever hundreds of things they choose to spend their lives learning about – they’re ready.”


“Habits Improve Classroom Discussions” by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in Phi Delta Kappan, September 2013 (Vol. 95, #1, p. 70-71),; Bambrick-Santoyo can be reached at [email protected]; his most recent book explores these issues in more depth: Great Habits, Great Readers: A Practical Guide to K-4 Reading in Light of the Common Core (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

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