Neurons in the brain - illustration
Neurons in the Brain by Benedict Campbell – Wellcome Images

Talking about your learning is one of the best ways to make your learning stick.  The brain is able to make better connections when you are active in your learning.  Actually speaking what you believe or what you are learning is a way to make those connections happen effectively.

In a workshop I took a couple of summers ago on how brains learn best, it was a revelation to me to realize the potential in having learners tell what they are learning to another person.  The best way to learn is to teach, not just absorb what another is saying.  I am a near expert in how to write an essay, cause and effect, the states of matter, and Vivaldi’s Winter because I’ve been teaching that content for so long.  Putting the talking part on the students is a great way to get them to converse about the curriculum.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working hard to transform my teaching from lecture-based to facilitation.  Have you ever had an observer time how much you talk verse the time you allow your students to talk?  I haven’t, but I know it’s been done.  And that type of idea trails in the back of my head sometimes as I teach.  And I ask myself, “Am I being effective as I talk?”  “How much of this is sticking?”  “Are these kids even listening?”

I found a quote a long time ago that has stuck with me for quite some time.  I can’t remember where it comes from or the exact wording, but it goes something like this:

A good classroom should sound like a really great cocktail party.”


I mean think about it… It makes sense.  At a cocktail party, people are enjoying themselves, smiling, engaging in good conversation, discussing things that are important to them, listening to varied points of view.  Wouldn’t that be a great thing to have in your classroom?

Now, I am in touch with reality here.  I know that there are times when the teacher needs to teach and therefore talk to the students.  I also realize that students cannot be in a constant state of cocktail party bliss.  But there are times when conversations are not only appropriate, but beneficial to student learning.  (And if I can implement them in a modified open concept school, I know you can do it too!)

Here are three ways I put my Cocktail Party Philosophy into practice.

Elbow Buddies

One of my favorite ways to spark more connected learning among students is with “Elbow Buddies.”  During a lesson, I will often say, “Now turn to your elbow buddy and talk about….” or, “Get with an elbow buddy and explain to them how…”  It’s a great way to get students to talk about what they are learning and it’s something I don’t have to plan ahead.  Before I ask for students to share their ideas with the class, I ask them to talk to their elbow buddies so that they all have to participate in the discussions, not just a few.  While the kids are talking, I’ll walk around and eavesdrop on their conversations, helping out those who get stuck or seem awkward.

Just yesterday I used it on the fly when I could tell that my students did not remember what a mixed fraction is.  After going over it on the board, I asked them to turn to their elbow buddies and explain what a mixed fraction is.

At a different time yesterday, when students were reviewing and reflecting on the essay they wrote, I asked them to talk with their elbow buddies about how they are doing with their writing.  What things were they doing well, what could they improve on, etc.  I also took the time to remind students that talking with their elbow buddy did not mean they take turns spouting out their ideas and then pass it off to the next person.  Instead, I emphasized the conversational part of it.  So, if one of your elbow buddies says something that resonates with you as you are actively listening to them, then respond to what they say.

A Grand Conversation

Another way I use conversation to help student learning is during our small group times, mainly when I take reading groups.   After students have read a section of a text on their own and reflected in their reading journals, we gather together to have a “grand conversation”.  Here I will ask a question and then sit back letting the students do the talking.  I keep track of who speaks and how often.  If I see someone talking too much I will let them know they are “cut off” until everyone has had a chance to speak.  I also will need to guide the conversation every once in a while.  Sometimes things get off topic or other times students don’t know what to say or how to respond.  It’s a guiding process for many students as they LEARN to converse.

Another variation on this is to have students start the conversations based on what they have written in their reading reflection journals.  With this, I ask a student to begin the conversation by citing a passage in the book that resonated with them and then telling their reflection of that passage.  Other students then respond to the ideas the first student presented.  It’s important to point out how to have a successful conversation.  Many student don’t know how to talk about their learning and they need to develop those skills.

Find and Talk

Brainstorming is big in my class.  As part of the John Collins writing method that my school district has adopted and used for years, students are expected to brainstorm through a “Type One” writing assignment many times throughout the week.  Brainstorming should be part independent and part social as far as I’m concerned and to make that happen effectively in my classroom I use a technique I learned while taking a course with John Collins.  After giving a brainstorming assignment such as, “Write 10 words or phrases you think of as you listen to this piece of music,” or, “Write 5 synonyms for the word happy,” I will ask students to draw a line under their final entry.  Then I ask them to find one (or two, or three) person/people to share with and come up with 1 (or 2) more ideas to write down.  Then I will ask them to find a completely different person or group of people to do the same thing.

This method of brainstorming does two things: It gets students to talk about their work and clarify their ideas and it emphasizes that collaboration is important.  (And this is one major point that “those tests” don’t allow for, but that’s another post.)

Conversations are so important not only to our students, but as I pointed out in my last post, Get in the Conversation, to us as well.  It is in conversation that we come to a better understanding of our own views and learnings and it’s important to use that power of conversation in our classrooms to help make better connections in our brain.

~EMP

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