Sunday, October 9, 2016

Just let them talk

Nineteen years ago, I worked alongside my father as we spread Sheetrock joint compound between cracks of drywall.  He had been working on this house for several months, having been hired to build the dream home of a local family.  The wife was a hair stylist; the husband fell under the phrase “works for the county,” which meant he did anything from mow berms to plow snow to attend meetings about zoning.  They were good people, respected people, well-liked people—and they’d saved their money for a decade to build this perfect little house, where they would finish raising their two children and settle into the next chapter of their lives.   

Their daughter, Ashley, would be a student in my class, starting tomorrow.  In the morning, I would officially begin my career as a teacher.  I would be the 7th grade English teacher in the same junior high where I’d attended fifteen years ago.   I was feeling nervous, but I couldn’t pinpoint, of all the things to worry about, what it was, exactly, I should be scared of. 

“So.  Tomorrow.”  I took a deep breath.

I loved helping my father.  He was a general contractor by day and a farmer by night and weekend.  I helped him do anything—pound nails, rip out shingles, bale hay, nurse sickly lambs back to health.  I liked the work.  It was physical and difficult, but satisfying:  There was something tangible and durable about it.

“Here’s the thing, honey,” my father said, dipping his trowel deep into the white bucket for another scoop of compound.  “Of all the things I’ve learned about kids, over all these years, from back when I was a teacher myself, but also as a father and a guy who’s watched a lot of stuff, there’s one I know for certain.  About all kids.  And that is this:  They love to talk.”


“About anything.  Mostly themselves, of course.  But about other people, too, and what they’re thinking about a lot.  Things that bother them or frighten them.  They like to talk about parents, friends, and experiences.  Anything, really.”

I nodded.  That made sense.

“So if you’re unsure—ever—about how to hook your students, about how to make them want to be part of your class, just let them talk.  Sit back and let them go, all together, as a class.  And listen.  Ask them questions that show you care what they are saying.  Ask questions that show you want them to keep them talking.”

So that’s what I tried to do, all the years I taught, because it didn’t take long to confirm that my father was spot-on; my students loved nothing more than when I let our class conversation flow naturally, and let myself slip into a listener’s role instead of a talker’s role.

Fast-forward a bunch of years, and now I’m watching other teachers do their work.  Not long ago, I had a post-observation conference I had very much looked forward to having.  The teacher, I had noticed, started every class with a several minutes of free-flowing conversation.  I asked him to tell me about it, and he answered with conviction. “It’s important to me to preserve time every day for students to talk as a class.  It connects us all and helps us share our experiences.  It tells me what they’re thinking about—and reminds me how they think.”   He smiled.  “Kids think differently than grown-ups.  I’m a better teacher if I remember that.”

“Is there anything you do to make sure the students are being thoughtful in their conversation?  And that they listen to one another?”

“I model good listening by repeating back a lot of what they say.  It validates their thinking.  It verifies that what they’ve said is important and that I’ve heard them.  And I ask them for more.  I say, ‘Tell me more about that,’ or I say, ‘Really?’ or ‘That’s interesting!’ And I ask other students to do the same when they are listening.”  He makes sure all students have the option to speak during his class conversation time, because even the quietest voices need to be heard.

Listening to him, I realized he was articulating all the reasons I’d loved all-class talk when I had been a teacher.  There are so many benefits to it.  It sets up a natural model for small-group talk and discussion, of course, but it’s bigger than that, even.  Setting aside a specific part of time for class conversation, and staying committed to it, ensures that every student has a voice every day.  Every student is heard, every day. 

Every time I go home to visit my parents, I pass the Ashley’s parents’ house, the one my father was in the midst of building back when I started as a teacher.  I think about the solidity of the drywall we sealed up that day, and I think of Ashley, and all the students in that first class I had.  And I am grateful for that exceptionally simple but prudent teaching tip:  Just let them talk.

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