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Hands Down, Speak Out!

Turn and Talk

Hello new readers! Welcome to our brand spankin’ new blog, Hands Down, Speak Out!

We’ll be using this blog to explore ways of engaging students in purposeful dialogue across content areas, but especially in literacy and math.

Who Are We?

Christy (literacy coach) and Kassia (math coach) worked together as classroom teachers teaching kindergarten through third grade before transitioning into K-5 coaching roles. Our interest in purposeful classroom talk is the product of many conversations and collaborations over the years as we have considered the intersections of math and literacy teaching and learning, particularly in how we teach students to engage in dialogue. And while we are both deeply committed to our content areas and creating communities of readers, writers and mathematicians within classrooms, we are also interested in how what we teach transcends the classroom walls.

During this professional journey we also became friends. You know how many work friendships have that one turning point where you go from colleague to friend? Sometimes it’s a deep, meaningful conversation, or a moment where one person supports the other through a difficult moment. Ours occurred when we agreed to attend a weekend yoga retreat with a bizarrely intense and angry yoga teacher. Upon arrival on the top of a remote mountain top in West Virginia, Kassia discovered she had forgotten her yoga mat. Kassia had a small panic attack. Christy said, “There’s definitely a whole closet of extra yoga mats inside. Just go in!” There were no yoga mats inside. Kassia had to complete an entire weekend full of both yoga and some very awkward interpretive dance on a hard wooden floor. Christy may or may not have been laughing at her.  Which was a good thing, since between the mindful vegan eating, solitary meditation in the 40 degree woods, and bunk bed sleeping arrangements, some levity was really necessary.

And Now We’re Writing A Book!

So, the moral of this story is that years of teaching, coaching, and weird yoga experiences can sometimes produce the material for an interesting co-authored book project! We’re so happy that Stenhouse Publishers has just accepted our proposal for a book about teaching students to talk in Hands-Down Conversations called, Hands Down, Speak Out.

In our book, we’ll be thinking about issues like: How do we teach students to talk AND listen to construct knowledge as a community?  How can we work these mini lessons about talk into both math and literacy, so we can carry and strengthen these skills across the day?  How do you encourage equitable participation and ownership over a conversation? What do you do when a group of students dominates the conversation and a group of students always stays quiet? We’ll also be thinking about how you can nurture disagreement, build to big ideas and engage with the world through specific literacy and math content.

Wait, What’s A Hands-Down Conversation?

You may be wondering about this whole Hands-Down Conversation (HDC) idea.

What and Why:

Hands-Down Conversations (HDCs) are a structure for dialogue that is designed with the intention of deepening the level of classroom discourse by creating conditions in which students take greater ownership of and have more decision-making power in conversations. The primary goal of HDCs are to build students’ agency as readers, writers, mathematicians and world-changers who are prepared to use their words to take on the world!

The structure of these conversations is straightforward. Students gather in a circle dillane_circle
in the meeting area of the classroom. The teacher sits just outside the circle. The basic “rules of HDCs are:

1) no hand-raising–listen for a place to slide your voice into the conversation,

2) one voice at a time (more or less)

3) listen closely to the person speaking.

The role of the teacher as facilitator shifts in Hands-Down Conversations. While it is no longer her role to call on each participant in the conversation, her role is just as important as ever. The teacher sits outside of the circle listening deeply and taking a transcript or drawing a conversation map of participation. While the teachers speak much less frequently in a HDC than a traditional classroom conversation, she isn’t completely silent. She listens for students to raise important ideas and might pause the conversation and ask students to zoom in on this idea. She listens for the beginnings of productive disagreement and asks students to linger in this space.


If having a conversation without hands sounds a little messy, that’s because it usually is at the beginning! Students are conditioned to having the teacher do a lot of the dialogue work in classroom conversations. We believe students benefit from explicit tiny lessons (even smaller than a mini/focus-lesson!) that orient them to how to develop dialogue skills and talk moves that help them 1) listen with the intent to understand, 2) talk about their own reasoning and 3) engage with others’ reasoning. voice chart

To understand more about this structure of dialogue lessons check out this dialogue lesson from our book on getting students to self-monitor their participation in Hands-Down Conversations.. Also check out Heidi Fessenden’s blog post trying out our lesson on self-monitoring with her second graders.


We think HDCs are one important structure for conversation that should be in practice across literacy and math several times per week throughout the elementary years.

Come Along!

So while our book-writing process will take a while, we hope you’ll join us as we learn more about Hands-Down Conversation and classroom talk. We hope to use this blog and Twitter to share what we’re trying out and we hope you’ll share what you try out with us too. We’ll be using the hashtag #handsdownspeakout on Twitter.  See you there!

P.S.Check out this ten minute talk Kassia gave about Hands-Down Conversations at this year’s Chicago Regional NCTM. (Kassia starts at about the 19 minute mark of this video.)



Christy (literacy coach) and Kassia (math coach) are the authors of Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math.

7 thoughts on “Hands Down, Speak Out!

  1. What a perfect time for you to have created this! My collaborative partner and I are researching hands down conversations as part of our teaching goals this year. I am looking forward to your insight as we get started on implementing this in our classrooms!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just saw this in action today at the Opal School in Portland. It was fascinating observing which students participated, who didn’t and how the teacher facilitated the discussion and focused the students attention. I am eager to give this a try and am excited to transcribe a conversation. So often I’ve wondered if I was fully aware of who was speaking and who wasn’t but when we, as teachers are engaging in discussions where everything goes through us, it is difficult, if not impossible to reliably keep track of that important information. I look forward to reading and learning more about HDC.


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