Friday, October 16, 2009

Making Connections: Talking and Learning in a Fourth Grade Classroom

On Wednesday, I spent the first two hours of my morning at Midway Elementary School in Holt, Michigan. My Collaborating Teacher (Mr. CT) is a fourth grade teacher and he has been teaching for six years, two of those years at Midway. He graduated from Michigan State University and he does a wonderful job with his students...(I think it's because he's an MSU grad!) On Wednesday morning, I arrived at the school at 8:20, ready and raring to go! I had just enough time to discuss my objectives for the day (observing a classroom discussion) with Mr. CT before the students filed in from the playground. I was in luck! He was teaching a science lesson called, "Let's Think About Night and Day" and the lesson would begin AND end with a whole class discussion. I took a seat in the back of the room to avoid catching the wandering eyes of fourth graders, and set to work making my observations.

Before even beginning the lesson, Mr. CT quieted the class down by using a hand signal. He then spoke directly to the students and asked for quiet and he also explained the need for respectful classroom behavior while participating in the discussion. He told the students that this was a "brainstorming activity" then he said, "Are we allowed to make mistakes?" and the entire class yelled, "YES!" He went on to explain that no answers or opinions were wrong, and he wanted everyone to take a stab at participating. The lesson began with a "Science Talk". Mr. CT stood at the front of the room and asked the class leading questions that would prompt critical thinking. Obviously, the main question/bid idea for the lesson was: "What causes day and night?" However, rather than begin the class discussion by immediately addressing the big idea, Mr. CT actually asked questions that would lead the students in that direction. For example, his first questions was, "Who can tell me something about the motion of the earth?" As the discussion got rolling, Mr. CT took a less active/participating role. He allowed the students to step up and lead the class by allowing them to freely talk with one another and he simply observed and wrote notes on the board when students made good points. The whole discussion lasted about ten to fifteen minutes and the atmosphere in the room was very respectful...quiet when students were talking, children were raising their hands, and telling one another "good job...good answer!"

As I was observing the classroom discussion, I was surprised at just how engaged the entire class was in the activity and at how well Mr. CT was able to propel the discussion while keeping the entire class eager, and excited. Everyone was listening quietly with their eyes on the speaker, students were raising their hands, waiting their turn to speak, and everyone had the opportunity to talk. I was very impressed at Mr. CT's ability to create a safe classroom/learning environment, and at his knack for relating to the students. He spoke to them as equals, and he had very high expectations of them, which I feel they deserved.

As I observed Mr. CT's ability to create a safe learning environment through great classroom management, as well as his discussion techniques, I was reminded of the article I read called, "Collaborative Conversations: Strategies for Engaging Students in Productive Dialogues" written by Dorothy Simpson. Simpson's article discussed how important open dialogue and classroom discussions are in creating meaningful lessons for students. On the third page of Simpson's article, she listed eleven different strategies for teachers to use during a dialogue. A few of the strategies included in Simpson's list are:

1. Are you inviting all students to speak without judging their comments?
2. Are you listing the ideas on a board or projector during the discussion?
3. Are you asking for supporting evidence after each comment?
4. Are you paraphrasing each comment?
5. Do you provide "wait time" after each comment?
(Simpson, 1997, p.3)

Those are just a few; however, I witnessed Mr. CT utilize ALL of those strategies and more.

Simpson, D. (1997). Collaborative conversations: strategies for engaging students in productive dialogues. The Science Teacher. P. 1-8 (Accessed from

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