June 11, 2015

Let's Talk About Accountable Talk.

Well, here we are. One week into summer vacation and life is good. I've been reading a ton, catching up with my favorite Housewives and babysitting my sweet little niece. This week I've been going to school in the mornings to work on a writing focus calendar for next year. I'm super excited about that because I really think it will help our kids be more successful readers! 

But, this blog post is not about summer. Or writing. It's about accountable talk. And, unfortunately, it won't have any cute pictures or funny stories. But, I honestly think it will be one of the most useful posts I've ever done. Because, accountable talk works. I've seen it first hand. I'm a believer. 

Okay, so here's how I had the most successful year of teaching I've ever had. And please know that I am NOT an expert. Nor do I think I know everything about accountable talk. Many, many teachers have been using this for a long time and know a LOT more about it than I do! This is just what worked for me
in my classroom. 

At the beginning of this year, I was really worried. I had a very low class, especially in math. We're talking "half the class made a 46 on the test" kind of low. And, when you teach third grade, that's really scary because you know these kids will have to take state tests and you know your whole school is riding on their scores. I tried everything. I pulled small groups, we used manipulatives all the time, I taught multiple ways, I talked to the math coach... I literally couldn't think of what else to do. Part of the problem was that most of these kids were EL students who just didn't have a great grasp of the language and we all
know that third grade math requires a lot of reading and understanding of academic language. It was October and I was still struggling daily to help over half my class be successful in math. 

So, one night, I came across a pin on Pinterest about accountable talk. And, even though I've seen these pins millions of times, something made me take a second look that night. I decided I would try it the next day. And, I did. It was moderately successful, but the kids loved it!!! Thank goodness, a few months later, we had some PD about accountable talk and I realized that I was doing it wrong. This PD really opened my eyes to what accountable talk could be and I went back the next day and started over! 

I don't want anyone else to make the mistakes I did when I first started. So, here's how I did it the second time and how it completely changed my classroom and my teaching for the better! 

1. Drink the Kool-Aid. 

This is the most important advice I can give. Kids are master mood-readers. They know when you've bought in to something and when you haven't. You don't have a prayer of this working unless you're committed and excited. I sat my kids down on the carpet and I told them that the day before, our principal had told me something that blew my mind. Of course, they were all dying to know what he told me. I told them that he had said "The person who does the talking does the learning." And, we talked about what that meant. Then I asked them who talks the most in our classroom and they all pointed to me. Talk about a sobering moment! So, I told them that I wanted our classroom to be different. I wanted them to be the ones learning. And that meant that they were going to have to start talking more! Well, they were hooked! What kid hates to hear that they need to talk more at school? Exactly! 

So, this began our transformation. We used that quote a lot throughout the rest of the year. The kids would ask me from time to time if we were going to use accountable talk for a certain activity and I'd pretend to think about it and they'd say "But, Ms. Ridings! We need to do the learning! You already know it!!" And, so I'd "agree" to let them use accountable talk. They all bought in to it big time and I think it's because they knew how excited I was about it. 

2. The key to being a good talker is being a good listener. 

So, after they bought in, we got started. Our PD did a really good job of explaining how to get it started and luckily, it's super easy!!! I started with explaining that the key to being a good talker is being a good listener. I asked them if their minds ever wandered away when someone was talking to them. They all raised their hands. I asked them why it was important to be a good listener when someone else was talking. We brainstormed together. Then, I told them that we were going to practice being good listeners! On a piece of chart paper, I wrote "What I heard you say was..." And, I asked a kid a silly question like "What's your favorite song?" When they told me, I used the sentence frame to repeat it back to them. Then, I asked another kid. But, this time, I obviously didn't listen. I looked away and fiddled with the marker in my hand and then made up another answer when I repeated the sentence frame back. And, the kids went nuts! So, we talked about how the talker felt when I didn't listen and what I missed them saying when I wasn't listening.

 So, then I put the kids with partners and we practiced it using fun topics. We literally spent 10 minutes (or less) and then moved on. But, during that day, I tried to incorporate it into our lessons as much as possible. "Tell your shoulder partner which character is your favorite." "Okay, shoulder partners, tell your partner what you heard them saying using accountable talk." Easy breezy. 

A day or two later, we worked on summarizing what our partners said. I wrote "what I think you're saying is..." on the same chart and then we did the same routine.  Practice it together, practice with partners. The kids loved this one because they didn't have to say the answer back word for word and they had some freedom in their response.

3. Let's agree to disagree. 

The next goal was to teach them to be able to evaluate a response that someone gave. So, once I felt like they were good listeners, we moved on. I added " I agree with ----- because...." and "I respectfully disagree with ----- because..." to our chart. Then, I told them that when someone makes a statement, you need to decide if you agree with that statement or not. We talked about how it's okay if someone disagrees with you because they're going to say it in a respectful way. And, it doesn't mean they don't like you or you're not smart, it just means that they have a different opinion than you. And that's okay. This is where accountable talk is huge, in my opinion. It creates a culture where kids can make mistakes and have discussions with each other without feelings getting hurt or damaging confidence. My kids really, really latched on to this part. 

I started off saying something goofy like "I believe that the sky is purple." And, different kids would tell me that they respectfully disagreed and would tell me why. I was very careful to make sure they used the sentence frames properly every time because I wanted those frames to help build the language in our environment. Then, I let the kids tell their partners how they felt about homework. And their partners agreed/respectfully disagreed and gave their reasons why. We made sure to keep talking about being a good listener because to agree or disagree, you have to understand what the person is saying. This was, hands down, my kids' favorite part of accountable talk. I really think they became excellent listeners at this point because they wanted to chime in with whether or not they agreed or disagreed! Who doesn't love to share their opinions? And what teacher doesn't love it when kids are developing arguments for their opinions on a daily/hourly basis?

4. Start class discussions.

So, at this point, about a week had passed by and we had really only been using accountable talk with partners. But, my goal was for this to become a way for us to have class discussions. I truly wanted to transform what our whole group time looked like. So, once I felt like they had the first four sentence frames down, we ventured a little further from our comfort zone. I sat them down again and I told them that I was so proud of how well they were doing with accountable talk and I wanted to try something. They were all like "Okay, let's do it!!!" So, I told them that I was going to read a story and I was going to stop some during the story and ask questions, but I wasn't going to talk after that. I wasn't going to call on anyone and I wasn't going to say anything! We talked about how they didn't have to raise their hands, but if they started talking at the same time as someone else, they needed to stop and figure out who would go first. And they could speak up and tell if they agreed or disagreed with someone's answer as long as they did so respectfully. They were soooooo excited. 

So, I read a little and then stopped and asked a question. Then, I sat there and didn't say a word. And, ya'll? They did it! They actually did it! On the first try, they carried on a discussion about the question I had asked. I was shocked! Were there times when I had to bite my lip to keep from saying something? Yes! Were there some times when two kids would start talking at the same time and they'd struggle a little to decide who would speak first? Of course!  It was definitely clunky in the beginning. But I just made myself be quiet and let them work through it. And, what's amazing is that the higher kids in the class really took the lead and helped out with all this. They'd kind of monitor and help problem solve and they did it without me having to ask them. Eventually, it wasn't just the higher kids, it was everyone. 

4. Add to the list. 

We continued to add sentence frames to our anchor chart. And, I put this anchor chart front and center in our classroom because we used it all the time!!! Here's what it looked like on the last day of school.

So, those are the frames we ended up using. What's awesome is that after about the first six or seven, the kids came up with the rest! They would think of frames that would be helpful for them and they would ask if we could add them to chart. We'd always discuss it as a class (I agree because...) and then add it if most of them felt like it was something they would use. I loved this because I feel like it gave them ownership of the chart! They were actively involved in creating every bit of it and we used it daily so it was very special to them! (On a side note, after I took this picture, I took the chart down because it was the last day of school. And, my kids were like "No! Don't throw it in the trash!! We want to keep it!" Since I couldn't just give it to one kid, they discussed it and decided I should cut each sentence frame out and give them out. So, I cut them into strips and they wore them as hats on the last day of school!) 

5. Transforming Morning Work. 

I can remember a few years ago that I had a student teacher and I literally would not let her check morning work with my kids because it was our time for math spiral review and I was afraid that she would explain problems differently than I had explained them. Which, looking back, is super embarrassing and humbling for several reasons. But, mostly, it just reiterates to me that I was doing all the talking. 

And here's the thing. We all do this. We talk at our kids all day long. I think we've all come a long way with this, but I think a lot of teachers still do the majority of the talking. We're teachers, we like to be in control. You know I'm right.

 But, when I saw how successful my kids were in using accountable talk in reading, I started using it more in math. And, I started with morning work. This ended up being, without a doubt, the MOST transformative thing I did all year. 

Here's how it looked: Their morning work every day was four math problems on a PowerPoint that reviewed skills that were previously taught. After announcements and breakfast clean up, we'd come to the carpet. And, I'd call on a kid to come up and show how they solved the first problem. I taught them how to explain every single step by modeling, modeling, modeling. But, I also taught them that if someone didn't explain every step, that was okay because that just provided you with a question you could ask later! So, while the kid is at the board showing how they solved the problem, all the rest were sitting there and listening. And, because I had taught them to be good listeners, they were awesome at this! After the first day or two, I rarely had to ask anyone if they were listening because I could see their eyes looking straight at the board! I also taught them early on that if they thought of a question to ask, they could write it down on their paper so they didn't forget! They did this a lot at the beginning, but eventually this tapered off because they didn't need to anymore. 

So, when the kid that is explaining finished, they would say "Does anyone agree with me?" And then everyone who agrees raises their hand. Then, they ask "Does anyone have any questions?" And the kids are free to ask questions to that kid. At first, the questions were a little repetitive and of course we had to have some conversations about questions that are helpful and questions that aren't. But, after a while, they got better and better at it! We would do this process for all four questions. I know what you're thinking. "Um, really? I bet that took all morning!" Not gonna lie, in the beginning, it did take a really long time. But, as they got better and better at it, we were checking all four questions and discussing them in fifteen/twenty minutes and I feel like that was worth every second for several reasons. Remember I mentioned that my kids were low in math? Well, when we first started this, those low kids were really hesitant. I would have to call on them and they'd go up there and barely whisper and rarely get the answer right. But, I kid you not, after doing this for several months, you couldn't even tell who the low kids were! Their confidence soared and I purposefully called on them the most. I feel like this was worth every single minute we spent on it! 

6. Test Prep

I also used accountable talk a TON with test prep. I would have them work problems and then they would go over them completely on their own. I wouldn't speak at all unless there was something that was being discussed wrong that I needed to clear up. I also taught them to talk about which choices they eliminated and why and this became a huge part of our accountable talk. They would say "I eliminated B because... Does anybody agree with me?" and they'd discuss it amongst themselves. I felt like my kids were more prepared for state testing this year than any other year. And, that's saying a LOT because I told you about our math situation at the beginning!

7. General Tips

Okay, so this is becoming crazy long. Here are just some last things that I think it's important to share...

-Accountable talk worked best for me at the carpet. I found that the kids listened better when we were all close together and they had better responses when they could look at each other while speaking. I know some teachers who do it at desks and it works fine, so this is totally a personal preference. But, for me,
I feel like it helped build that community if we were all kind of close together.

-I found it hard at times to be completely quiet. So there are two things I did: I sat behind the kids when we checked morning work. That way, it wasn't about
me. They couldn't even see me. And, it helped me to keep quiet. The second thing I did was teach my kids to be my monitor. You may not feel comfortable doing this, but I taught my kids a hand signal to do if they felt like I was monopolizing the conversation. It looked like a quacking duck with their hands. I just told them that it's their classroom and they are the reason we are there. And, if they needed me to be quiet so they could be the one learning, I was totally okay with that! They didn't abuse this at all, but I could see how some classes possibly could. But, it really helped me to realize when I was talking too much!!!

-Some kids will speak up a lot and some will be more hesitant to join in. In the beginning, I didn't make anyone speak who didn't want to. I wanted them all to feel comfortable and I found that most of my kids eventually joined in when they felt ready. I really only had two or three who just rarely ever spoke. So, at times, I would say that no one else could jump in until we heard from everyone. That usually did the trick. But, I also had a few conversations with the "eager beavers" who wanted to respond to every single
comment. I usually found that if I talked
to the child, they'd fix it and let others join in.

-I also had two or three kids who would raise their hand to ask the exact same question every single time someone worked a morning work problem. So, I told them they got one question per morning and that was it. It didn't upset them at all because I still let them ask the question. Just not every single time. 

-Setting academics aside for a second, I think this also had a HUGE impact on my kids socially. It gave them a voice and an outlet for problem solving. One day, I asked a kid to move his clip for something. He moved his clip, but I could tell he was really upset. He just kept looking at me and I could tell he wanted to tell me something. Finally, he walked over and he said "Ms. Ridings, I respectfully disagree with you about moving my clip." And, then he explained how I misread the situation and he actually wasn't doing what I thought he was. We discussed it and I let him move his clip back up and honestly, I was just so proud of him for using accountable talk in  a way that wasn't even academic. We hadn't practiced that at all! 

This same kid got in an argument with a kid in another class at recess one day. When we got done talking with them about it, he said "Ms. Ridings? Can I talk to him about what happened?" I was shocked. I said he could and he proceeded to tell this kid that he didn't agree with how he was tackling in football and explained how it hurt when he did it. He asked the kid if he could please tackle the way they had agreed on when they started playing.  I can honestly say, it was one of my proudest moments in eight years of teaching. Two months earlier, this same kid would just shut down when he got mad and wouldn't even talk to me when I would take him in the hallway to discuss his behavior. And he definitely wasn't the only one using accountable talk socially, he's just the one who it changed the most. Next year, I'll be sure to focus even more on using accountable talk socially. You know the saying, our kids teach us more than we teach them. It really is true. In so many ways. 

-One last story. At the end of the year, I was really sick one morning and had to call in a sub. Well, no sub picked up the job because our district has a major sub shortage and my kids had to absorbed out. When I got back the next day, I asked my kids how their days had been. One kid said "Ms. Ridings? We checked morning work and the teacher talked the whole time! I had so much trouble listening because I knew I wasn't going to get to ask questions! Thank you for always letting us do the learning!" Those were his exact words. 

Okay, this has become ridiculously long. If you have any questions about accountable talk, just ask. I am not an expert by any means, this is just what worked for me in my class. I hope it works for you too! 


J Wilson said...

I loved this blog topic and you have me hooked! It sounds amazing and your students responded so well with it! I am so interested in learning more about using accountable talk in my own classroom. Can you tell me where I can read more about it?

Lindsay said...

Hmmmm. I'm going to be really honest with you. I didn't read any literature about it. How terrible is that?? In our PD, they did give us some articles about it but I don't even really remember what they said. What really stood out to me were some videos they showed us about accountable talk. Just now, I looked on YouTube and there are TONS of videos of examples of accountable talk! I know they showed us the one that mentions bugs in the title. But, seeing examples of what it looks like in an actual classroom are what helped me the most! Seeing the different ways different teachers used it gave me so many great ideas and strategies to use. So, I'd honestly start there. I'm sorry that I'm not more help as far as books go!!

Michelle said...

I will be re-entering the classroom this fall after 2 years off...going to definitely give this a try!!

Anonymous said...

I would love to try this next year. The beginning of the year is usually a tine where we teach so many classroom routines. Are you planning on starting this from day 1?

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful blog post! I was led to your blog from Pinterest (of course) and I've been browsing and reading for quite a while now. I'm absolutely about to go learn more about accountable talk. Thank you.