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Using Instructional Conversation (page 5)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Oct 30, 2010

Conversation Side of IC

The ideal conversation is inclusive, responsive, and balanced. IC promotes a speaking role for every student. The teacher monitors students' participation, especially to encourage reticent students.

Inclusive Teachers often begin IC with a topic or stimulus to elicit students' talk about their experiences, feelings, and prior knowledge. To encourage their talk, teachers may use manipulatives, illustrations, semantic webs, overviews, charts, textbooks, trade books, writing, games, student models, and student suggestions and comments. In the following excerpt, the teacher accepts every student's contribution, even irrelevant comments such as Concha's:

Luis:     The black hole.

Teacher:     Do you know what the black hole is? Can you explain that to everybody in the group?

Luis:     It is a round thing, and it has a lot of stars.

Teacher:     It is a round thing. [Turns and writes on board] So you're saying that the black hole is something—

Concha:     I don't really care.

Teacher:     That is round [Luis and Concha laugh] and it has, what else did you say?

Luis:     Stars.

In an ideal IC, students do not raise their hands or take round-robin turns. During the early phase of an IC, teacher and students converse about a broad range of topics, but particularly individual experience and background knowledge. In the brief IC excerpt that follows, the teacher uses a photograph from a familiar television series, Star Trek, as a stimulus for students to talk about space, an interesting topic previously discussed with the whole class. The teacher selected an opening topic based on general math so she could get to know the students. Her goal was to develop rapport and find out what the students already knew about space. Although five students are participating, one student's responses demonstrate the advantages of IC for sustained dialogue between teacher and student that produces a complete and specific expression of the student's thinking.

Edgar:     They have like holes in them. Like— [Moves his hands in a circular motion]

Teacher:     They have like holes in the planet. Holes in the planet, does anybody know what else we can call that?

Luis:     Pozos. [Holes]

Edgar:     Shooting stars.

Teacher:     Shooting stars? Is that another name for the holes in the planet? Does anyone know what those—

Edgar:     Shooting stars are like stars, but they go shooo [makes sweeping hand gesture] really fast and when you see them you can make a wish.

Responsive IC assumes that students may have something to say beyond repeating the correct answers from the book. Students often provide correct answers, but IC requires teachers to grasp the intent of students' answers, whether they are correct, incomplete, or irrelevant. Teachers listen to personal and new information from students. They adjust their responses to assist students' communicative efforts to promote the conversation. Teachers continuously monitor the match between their planned IC assistance (such as activity level, questioning, scaffolds, and duration of IC) and the information presented by students' conversational participation, which may change the level or direction of the IC. This approach sounds highly challenging, but it actually involves routine adult conversational skills plus a teacher's insightfulness. For example, the following excerpt shows how a teacher is responsive and provides immediate assistance to a student:

Concha:     I can't remember anything!

Teacher:     You can't remember, that's OK. That's why we are reviewing. Now, do you know what it means when it's that three? What was [your regular classroom teacher] just talking about?

Daniel:     Circles.

Concha:     Circles and squares, circumference.

Edgar:     Circumference.

Daniel:     Degrees and all that.

Concha:     Radius.

The teacher immediately sensed Concha's feelings of failure. The teacher reviewed the purpose of the conversation with Concha, then directed questions to her. The teacher's attention to Concha did not interrupt the flow of the conversation. The lack of disturbance was evidenced in the way the group continued. Daniel answered questions addressed to Concha, as did Edgar. Concha's subsequent appropriate contribution, ''Radius,'' indicated that she had returned to the conversation.

Certainly the teacher was skillful in maintaining the flow of the conversation while dealing with a single student's difficulties. The students' sustained attention to the content suggests that the group was highly focused and on topic. Later Concha was able to provide assistance to another student. Here the teacher begins to provide assistance again but defers to Concha when she tries to help the other student.

Teacher:     Do you guys want to mark the middle?

Daniel:     Hey, my middle came out crooked.

Teacher:     Did you, when you—

Concha:     Did you fold it twice?

Daniel:     No, I didn't fold it twice.

Concha:     Alright, so that's it.

Daniel accepted Concha's assistance. The course of an IC is open-ended, no matter how well planned. Responsiveness is key to affirming students' input, to exploring its meaning and value for the IC, and to returning the conversation to its goal.

Balanced Participation Teachers develop IC using students' contributions. In the following IC excerpt about Saturn's rings, the teacher guides but does not dominate. She allows a student to assist the conversation by introducing visual evidence.

Teacher:     Yeah, and we also talked about some other characteristics. We talked about colors, and sometimes some planets have rings around them, right?

Luis:     Just Saturn has it, only Saturn? [He looks up at a poster.]

Teacher:     I don't know. Does only Saturn have a ring around it?

Daniel:     Yeah.

Teacher:     [To Daniel] Yeah?

Luis:     They're all right there. Look. [Points up to poster. Everyone looks up.]

Edgar:     Yeah, I think, huh?

Concha:     Yeah, only Saturn.

Teacher:     [To Concha] Only Saturn? [Concha nods.]

Notice how Luis answers the teacher's question but then returns the question back to the group. Luis then points everyone to the classroom poster. The visual evidence informs everyone, including one student who participates nonverbally with an affirmative nod.

Including IC regularly in the instructional frame of classroom teaching provides discussion and dialogic opportunities that assist learning. IC is an advance, but its occasional or sporadic presence is insufficient. Its full effect is accomplished when it is the culmination of the system of five pedagogy standards.

How to Schedule IC

The system of five pedagogy standards is designed to support IC as the major teaching approach. The instructional frame includes a variety of activities and groupings but schedules IC as a regular, daily activity. IC that is scheduled daily can be devoted to a single lesson on a specific topic, or it can extend over numerous sessions. The seventh grade ELL circle measurement IC was conducted over five classroom sessions of thirty minutes apiece.

Students know what the plan for the day is because the teacher always posts or writes the instructional frame on the board. This happens even before the briefing, when all of the tasks and activities are explained. Every one knows how the frame works and where they are scheduled to be according to their individual schedules with their sequence of numbers indicating the activity setting they are to attend. Or students might have a choice schedule, which contains activity settings they want to attend, which they have worked out with the teacher. On a choice schedule, students still attend the teaching activity setting and follow-up (see Appendix 8C). They understand that the teacher's work with groups in the teaching center is very important and is interrupted only in an emergency.

At the end of a frame's instructional activity session (which usually lasts twenty minutes) the teacher signals for everyone to move on to the next activity. Travel around the classroom is completed within a minute. After another twenty-minute session, the teacher signals the return to a whole-class format to debrief. On the way to the debriefing, the students deposit their papers in their work folders in the places designated to receive the work products. Then the ten-minute briefing begins. Students describe their progress. The classroom agreement is reviewed to check how it matches their experience. The teacher is pleased to inform the students that their progress matches the agreement and they will soon have a pizza party reward. All the students leave the class with smiles and feelings of accomplishment.

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