At our school we ended our annual professional development time with a Genius Hour-style PD project. Each teacher worked alone or with a small group to learn, explore and then put into practice something that we needed in our teaching lives.
Dillian, grade 1 English, and I worked together to answer the question, “What new tools can we learn to help students articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral English and to demonstrate the ability to work effectively and respectfully in a variety of small group situations? (Check out Accountable Talk and others)”
We created that question on 17 April 2016. Then we got to work learning about Accountable Talk, something I had heard about (just in passing) at the Google Apps for Education Summit the weekend before.
We discovered the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh has published many free resources about Accountable Talk, as well as some resources you can purchase.
Accountable Talk is one of nine Principles of Learning. Pam Goldman describes these principles in podcasts 6, 7, and 8. Accountable Talk is specifically related to learning and teaching in the first seven Principles of Learning.
- Accountable Talk
- Socializing Intelligence
- Self-Management of Learning
- Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum
- Clear Expectations
- Organizing for Effort
- Learning as Apprenticeship
- Fair and Credible Evaluations
- Recognition of Accomplishment
Here are my notes on the Accountable Talk podcasts. You can read some of the transcripts and more about each of the principles.
Dillian and I also signed up for a course entitled, “Creating Engaging Environments for English Language Classrooms,” from the University of Oregon. It’s been a great course, and I’m learning a lot, but Module 2 was particularly applicable. It was about small groups. In an article by Anne Hammond Byrd*, we learned strategies for engaging children in meaningful conversation and collaboration in small groups.
- Make students aware of the purpose and benefits of learning cooperatively. And don’t make grades one of the reasons!
- Practice cooperation skills with nonacademic games.
- Change the culture of your classroom. “Consider providing students with opportunities to practice communication within a group by allowing whole class conversations to occur freely without constant teacher direction. By creating an atmosphere that encourages social interaction within a group, teachers allow students to become more comfortable with the structure of the cooperative learning lesson design. Allow students the freedom to discuss ideas in class discussions openly without raising their hands for permission to speak.” ~Anne Hammond Byrd
- Establish ground rules for all cooperative learning activities.
- Balance student status. That is, sometimes strong personalities will have most of the influence in a group. Groups should be changed up to balance the interactions. In fact, a good idea is to put several very quiet students together, where new leaders will emerge.
- Assign roles. Especially as they first learn what to do in their groups.
- Provide demanding tasks. This is a good one for me to take to heart. Sometimes I don’t have high expectations for partner and group work. I usually use partners to have students discuss something or practice the skills at hand. Sometimes small groups complete a practice game or task, but I need to remember that “together we are smarter.” They can do so much more, and I can expect that of a small group. I like the idea of having small groups practice for a presentation, and then vote on the one student who gets the privilege of sharing in front of the whole class. (Definitely related to #3 and 5 above.)
By the first week of May, we were teaching children some short sentences in an attempt to empower them to use English in conversations.
What I Learned
My students mostly speak in Arabic when they are working in small groups. If they need to communicate with me, that’s the only time they really have to use English. I never scold them for not using English, because they need to make connections, they don’t have the vocabulary or comfort level needed to speak English, and I’m sure there are other reasons. I do, however, want to encourage them to try more English. My goal is that they will become bilingual, and if they don’t practice in English class, many of them do not practice at all.
My few experiences with teaching the sentences above resulted in some powerful conversations. We practiced asking each other how to say certain words in English and Arabic.
Our conversations reminded me of when I was taking Spanish classes in high school. One of the key phrases that empowered me was, “¿Cómo se dice _____ in español?” (or, How do you say _____ in Spanish?) It was nice to be able to speak in Spanish while at the same time receiving help from my peers.
I saw the same enthusiasm in the children as they practiced saying, “How do you say___ in English?” or “How do you say _____ in Arabic?”
A Sweet Success Story
Just this week, one of the students spontaneously used the question, “Will you tell me more?” It was in response to a child, during show and tell, who had invited up several students for an impromptu skit of sorts. She was asking them questions, and they responded good-naturedly. It was all very fun and engaging. At one point, though, she asked an incomprehensible question. Without missing a beat, he said, “Will you tell me more?” He looked up at me, with an enormous smile, and pointed to the sentence strip questions.
Now, we have finished with the school year, and next year I will move up to Grade 5. I will definitely bring what I have learned about empowering students with language to help them communicate better in English. We will do cooperative groups with engaging, yet demanding, tasks. I will recognize from the start that the students don’t speak and understand English as much as their English teachers have assumed they do. Finally, I will work hard to build a culture of trust, understanding, acceptance, vulnerability, and safety for all the students.
Here are some of the helpful resources I’ve been using: