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Getting to the Heart of Conversation: Inviting Learners to Bring Their Whole Selves to Speaking and

“Readers let’s take a look at our anchor chart. Which conversational starter will you use in your discussions today? Choose one and jot it down. This will help keep your conversation going.”

I was certain that this lesson, or ones like this, were supporting students’ discussions. They were making a decision as to which sentence starter to use, so there was choice. They were using the sentence starters to keep the discussion going, so there was purpose. They were engaging in discussions, so there was dialogue happening. However, for whatever reason, as I walked through the room the dialogue felt forced, the responses felt disingenuine, and the rich conversation that I was hoping for never showed up. Instead it was perfunctory, along the lines of:

Annabelle: “So in my story the character is beginning to change. I noticed this when he chose to help out his friend.”

Anthony: “I agree with you. That is happening in my book too.”

Annabelle: “Do you want to share something?”

Anthony: My character is changing too. He is starting to show more confidence around his peers.

(Enter: A quiet pause, blank stares, and a conversational lull)

What had gone awry? Why weren’t these prior lessons I’d taught on building a vibrant conversation transferring into real-life exchanges?

It was time to observe, listen in, and brainstorm as to what was holding back the energy and vibrant thinking. During that deep reflection I had an important realization: What the students needed first was an opportunity to study what makes a great conversation and a chance to feel and experience the impact of caring for one another's ideas, perspectives and beliefs. Being able to feel safe and cared for by other people are fundamental pieces to a meaningful and fulfilling learning life and so it became my mission to cultivate this in the classroom. I read articles and professional books on the role of talk in learning, and one of my favorite thinkers on the topic is Sherry Turkle, who said,

“Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.” (2015, p. 3)

What follows are 4 ways we can build a culture of care.

Question and think about the role of curiosity.

Learners can reflect and discuss the question, “Why might it be more interesting to be interested?” In order to develop a culture of care around the conversations it is important for learners to first feel the energy created when they are curious about one another thoughts, ideas, and questions.

Develop personalized definitions for the word empathy.

Learners can discuss and collaborate to develop their own understanding for the word “empathy” and how it plays a crucial part in our learning lives.

“1.Showing a connection between something or someone.

2. Having a growing hope inside of you to connect to something else.” 5th Grader

“To keep in mind that everyone is important. It is also important to have interest in other people.”

“Empathy is to understand emotions others are going through. It helps to nurture compassion and find out how you can assist real people through a tough time.” - 6th grader

Celebrate one another’s Ideas through conversational takeaways.

Learners can step back at the end of a conversation and write a discussion stream on what they are walking away now knowing. This helps develop an awareness around the lasting impact a conversation can have on us as people.

Reflect on how conversation reshapes our experiences.

After a few days of rich dialogue reflect back on how the classroom dynamic and energy shifts and changes when everyone expressed more interest in one another’s thinking. We might be able to arrive at the realization as a class that indeed conversation can be transformative.

A few weeks later, a friend was visiting my classroom for her usual afternoon check in and quick hello. We stood at the doorway briefly discussing some of our afternoon responsibilities when she paused mid conversation and said… “How did you get them to talk to each other like that?” What was happening in front of our eyes wasn’t “accountable talk” either, (the word accountable seems to harsh for what was happening here)! This was a group of people who were invested in one another. My friend and I leaned in and took a moment to listen to the readers chatting about their book club books….

Anthony: “I am not sure I noticed that part actually. Let me look back.” (Flipping through the pages)

Livi: (Leans in to help Anthony find the part in the text) Right here, this really stood out to me. Let’s reread that part again together. I am wondering what your thoughts are now?

Students were now naturally pulled into their discussions with a real interest in listening to one another’s ideas and a true investment to seeking out new understandings. What we witnessed and realized was that listening and speaking really involves your whole self. It demands a commitment without distractions of pre-planned decisions. They didn’t need sentence starters, scripts, talking-chips, or assigned roles, all it needed was trust, and the space to be heard, seen and listened to.

When beginning our work with conversation, we first must teach kids to care about each other and one another’s ideas. That is where our real work begins.