Posted in Uncategorized

3 Turn & Talk Tips for Back to School

Check out our very first video blog featuring three quick tips for Turn & Talk!

You can also download the three dialogue micro-lessons we refer to in the video. (For many more dialogue micro-lessons, check out our book, Hands Down, Speak Out.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the blog comments, on Twitter, or on Instagram.

What are trying out this school year with turn and talk?

Posted in Uncategorized

Books that we just MUST talk about

This is the third blog post in a mini series of posts Christy and Kassia are writing about different ways to launch a hands-down conservation across math and literacy and in social conversations. Read the first one here, and the second one here.

Kassia and I are both really into children’s literature. Neither of us would pretend to know everything about every new picture book that is published, but I think we would consider ourselves book-enthusiasts. It seems at least a couple times a week, we have a mini text exchange like this:

Kassia: Have you seen this one? A great book to pair with We Are Water Protectors

Christy: No! I haven’t yet – I would love to though!

Kassia: I’ll bring it by!

We are also really, really interested in cheese. Another typical text exchange goes something like this:

Christy: I am craving cheese. When can we go to a restaurant again and order one of these?

Kassia: I have some Ritz crackers and cheese sticks I could leave on your porch for you…

Christy: I’ll take it.

Unlike our mutual love of cheese, which is rather non-discriminatory, we are a little more selective when choosing read-alouds to inspire student conversation. We seek out books that kids will not be able to resist talking about. But perhaps even more importantly, we are really choosy when we think about how we will launch and facilitate that conversation. How we launch a conversation can make the difference between it being round-robin sharing or a dialogue in which students are both interested in sharing their ideas and listening to others. In this blog post, I will just share one example of a set of purposefully chosen books and the corresponding launches that sparked some great Hands-Down Conversations. 

How we launch a conversation can make the difference between it being round-robin sharing or a dialogue in which students are both interested in sharing their ideas and listening to others.

The Texts

Books that offer us a perspective on an issue are one type of text that inspires conversation. I like to try to pair such a book with other texts that touch on the same issue, preferably ones that offer a few different perspectives and/or different bits of information for us to consider, so we can build our understanding of the issue across texts. As we first explore an issue, I like to start with fostering a debate-centered conversation and then after reading a little more, try to move the students towards building a theory around the issue together.

Brave Girl, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated Melissa Sweet, is a piece of historical fiction that has a special place in our household. The heroine is Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish immigrant, who is described by the author as a force to be reckoned with. In our house we are always on the lookout for representation of strong Jewish girls and women, since we are striving to raise two of them. The book tells the story of how Clara was instrumental in organizing the New York City garment industry workers in the early 1900s to protest unsafe working conditions and unfair compensation. This book struck me as a good possibility for a Hands-Down Conversation, both because it addresses an important issue in our world – the ability to organize and fight for our rights, and because there are some ambiguous questions circling underneath the text, such as “When is the right time to say ‘no’ to an employer?” 

Joelito’s Big Decision/La Gran Decisión de Joelito, written by Ann Berlak and illustrated by Daniel Camacho, is a fabulous paired text about the issue of workers’ rights in a more modern context. I was grateful that this book was brought to my attention recently by a colleague in my school building. In this story Joelito and his family come across workers (including his friend and his family) striking for fairer compensation at their favorite fast food restaurant. Joelito and his family have to make the decision of whether or not to cross the picket line to get dinner that evening. This story takes on a different perspective of this same big issue – that of the consumer, and begs us to ask ourselves, “What is a fair distribution of wealth?” and “What is my role as the customer?”

The Launch

After reading these texts and thinking about the big ideas and issues circling in my own head, I wanted to choose a conversation launch that would get students talking. I wanted the launch to be short and accessible. I wanted it to invite students to use the texts and their personal experiences as evidence to support their thinking. And above all, I wanted the launch to make it clear to students that multiple answers and perspectives are welcome in our conversations. I decided my first launch should get us into the issue by stirring up a little debate and highlighting the ambiguity.

The debate-encouraging launch I settled on was: 

When is it a good decision to go on a strike or protest something?  

This launch encourages debate because it is ambiguous. Every individual will have a different definition of the word “good.” A good decision for me is not automatically a good decision for you. It gets us into the meat of the issue and some different perspectives at play.

A subsequent Hands Down Conversation launch after reading both texts and being ready to dive in deeper might be: 

What are you starting to believe about striking and protesting?

This launch encourages theory-building around the topic. It invites children to consider both texts and their personal experiences, look for patterns or similarities, and then try naming what they are theorizing and believing about the issue.

In Chapter 2 of Hands Down Speak Out, Kassia and I share some more examples of how we sometimes launch conversations with a debatable idea/question, and sometimes try to encourage working theories… in both math and in literacy!

The Conversation

Listening to the conversations that followed proved the power of both the texts and the launch. I heard students connecting the ideas in the texts to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests they had observed and taken part in within our communities. I observed students having open conversations with each other debating whether a protest about fair pay is as important as a protest over human life. Students brought up hearing their adult family members talk about being unfairly compensated, and they wondered aloud how they would deal with that problem if they were an adult who needed to stay employed. And I saw students working together to try to unpack the way our society works; the relationship between employer and employee and the wide discrepancies between what different groups of people earn in America. These types of conversations prepare our students to be active participants in their community and their country.

These types of conversations prepare our students to be active participants in their community and their country.

This is just one text set that we’ve used to spark conversation. These two particular texts are probably slightly better suited for 2nd-6th graders due to their length and style of writing, but in a future blog post we will explore some more primary-focused texts. We would like to hear if you try out using one or both of these texts with your students. And we would love to hear about your favorite books and how you launch Hands-Down Conversations about them. Or…your favorite type of cheese. Feel free to comment here or send a shout-out on Twitter!

Posted in Uncategorized

“Which is More?” Hands-Down Conversations in the Virtual Classroom

This is the second blog post is a mini series of posts Christy and Kassia are writing about different ways to launch a hands-down conservation across math and literacy and in social conversations. Read the first one here.

I (like many people!) have learned a lot about the value of mathematical ambiguity from educator and author of Which One Doesn’t Belong? and How Many?, Christopher Danielson (@trianglemancsd on Twitter). If you know Christopher’s work, you know he likes to ask questions that have lots of possible answers and which can be accessed by people who have a wide range of experience with math. A few years ago Christopher tweeted a new question he was playing around with: Which is more?

Inspired by Christopher’s “Which is More?” question, I took a couple of “Which is More?” photos in my house to use with kindergarten classrooms I was working with at the time. 

And here’s a “Which is More?” image I used in a first grade class during their study of coins (and connecting to their bigger study of place value and understanding our base-ten number system).

This image launched a delightful Hands-Down Conversation in which kids debated which cup of coins was “more coins,” “cost more,” and “weighed more” as well as how many pennies you might need in a cup to have the same value as the dime cup (“That wouldn’t even fit in the cup!”)

This year I’ve been working with some third graders in their online classroom. As they entered a unit on multiplication and division, I thought I might return to the “Which is More?” question, this time with a focus on looking at groups and arrays. 

These chocolate box images are designed with a slightly different focus than Christopher’s and my earlier ones, I think. While kids can and do use the ambiguous “more” to describe the images in different ways, (“There are more red chocolates in this group!” “There are more heart chocolates!” “The chocolates are bigger, so those are more”) the images in this set have led to more conversations about the total number of chocolates. I’ve tried to avoid the roteness/closedness this task could turn into by choosing images that have ambiguity to them (I’m super happy that chocolate companies like to photograph their chocolate boxes only partially open!).

For example, many of the images I gathered juxtaposed a chocolate box organized into an array with one that was organized in a different way like this partially-closed octagonal box below.

And with this other one below students might decide that each of these very different looking boxes shows six groups of six. So, which is more? Kids always have delightful responses. Some will be the responses you anticipated and hoped for, perhaps, because they aligned with your mathematical goal. And some will be unexpected, unaligned to your goal and just as lovely. Don’t forget to marvel at those ideas too! 

And with this one below we gave students time to write and draw (using Pear Deck) to justify their “Which is more?” response. Lots of kids told us what they imagined might be in that mysterious closed box!

Here’s how we’ve been facilitating these:

  1. We often start with a question that gets kids to attend to the details of the images. I often use “What do you notice?” but sometimes if I really want to focus on the total number of chocolates, I might ask “How many chocolates?” and “How did you figure it out?” This second question narrows the task a bit, so I have to consider whether I want to do that or not.
  1. Then I ask “Which is more?” “How do you know?”  (And sometimes I skip the first questions above altogether and just head into “Which is more?” depending on kids’ engagement, how much time we have, and the image. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it!)

I think of the “Which is more?” conversation launch as falling into both of these launch categories that Christy and I discuss in Hands Down Speak Out.

You can find all of these chocolate box images on Google slides here. Feel free to use them as they are or to use them as inspiration to create your own. 

A special thank you to math coach Erica Beckett (@Erica__Beckett) for co-teaching this group with me and teaching me lots about teaching online!

Have you used “Which is more?” What other launches have you used that leave room for ambiguity?

Posted in Uncategorized

Why the Snake is the Best Animal Emoji

This is the first blog post is a mini series of posts Christy and Kassia are writing about different ways to launch a hands-down conservation across math and literacy and in social conversations. 

One of my favorite ways to begin an online conversation with a new group of students is to ask them this question: What is the best animal emoji? First of all, who doesn’t love an emoji?! Second of all, asking this question allows students to jump into the chat box right away. I want to send the message from the very start that the chat box is equally as important as speaking out loud in our online conversations. (For a brilliant blog post on the chat box, please read Aeriale Johnson’s “All Because I Trusted Them to Use the Chat Box.” I read it a couple of months ago and it still has me thinking.)  And third of all, asking questions that encourage debate almost always gets kids talking and listening. 

When I asked, “What is the best animal emoji?” to a group of third graders recently, some kids just dropped their animal emoji in the chat without any further explanation, like this:


Other kids turn on their mic and start talking away. 

Alejandra:  I love turtles because I have a turtle and they’re cute. And I like that sea turtles can swim really, really fast–faster than us. And that other people save turtles by sometimes when they save them they put a towel on them because when it’s really sunny, if they leave them just like that they might have some problems with breathing, so that’s why they put a towel on them. And I love turtles because they’re so cute!

Because I was launching this particular conversation in a small group meeting online, I invited students to have a hands-down conversation. “You can turn on your mics and talk into the space you hear in the conversation. Make space for anyone who wants to join in,” I had said as we began.

As the conversation continued and students argued for why the deer and turtle emojis were both cool but the turtle was slightly better, Elias, who had been quiet since dropping his snake emoji, piped up again from the chat with some reasoning for his choice of snake.

Elias: “i like snakes becuse they are differint color and they deffend ther self and they comofloge”

Minutes had passed between when Elias originally put his snake emoji in the chat box and when he added on his reasoning for his choice. His camera was off. He didn’t talk out loud. If the chat box had been closed, we might have missed out on his ideas. (And we might have incorrectly assumed he wasn’t listening or didn’t want to participate.)

Alejandra typed back to him (and the rest of us) in the chat.  “Yeah, and cause of the venom. It’s poisonous…practically.”

In Chapter 8 “Nurturing Disagreement” of Hands Down, Speak Out, Christy and I write about different ways to launch hands-down conversations across math, literacy, and social conversations in ways that encourage lively debate.  

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.11.46 PM.png

Sometimes we might ask students to choose a side of the debate (i.e. Video games are good or video games are bad.), and other times we might leave the options more open like in the best animal emoji conversation. 

But one way to craft a really juicy launch for any kind of conversation be it social or content specific is by using what Marian Small, in Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction in the Standards-Based Classroom, calls “‘soft words,’ that is, words that are somewhat imprecise, undefined, or ambiguous” (9). Crafting a conversation launch that has the right amount of ambiguity gets kids talking, not because the teacher asked a question or out of compliance, but because they are genuinely interested in sharing their perspective and invested in listening to the ideas of others. 

Now that we’re several months into the school year, you might wonder if the usefulness of these social conversations has passed. Do we really have time to be talking about animal emojis? You might be feeling the pressure to push through academic content. Or you might be spending time in your class talking about big issues in the world and your communities. But I think there’s still space for playful social conversation, for making connections with one another and nurturing relationships through our talking and listening, in whatever space our class takes place.  

You can check out some interactive Google slides we’ve been playing around with in our online classrooms. Sometimes we use these slides as a way of getting kids thinking about a topic at the beginning of class before our conversation. Other times we may offer kids a few slides and ask them to interact with the one that interests them most. Then we can see what kind of conversation the kids are interested in having! Make a copy of any question you like or use the templates to create your own. Have one you’d like to add to the list? Drop it in a comment below. 🙂 

Posted in Uncategorized

Students as Reasoners in the Hands-Down Conversation

In March I (Kassia) got to meet with a small group of 5th graders in a tiny supply closet and lean in close to listen to their ideas. That seems like a lifetime ago in some ways.  We’re all learning new ways of talking and listening to students now, but there are some things that remain the same whether we’re sitting right beside them or listening to them through our computers. One of the primary roles of the teacher in Hands-Down Conversations in person and online is to listen to students and trust that all students come to the table with brilliant ideas and internal resources to draw upon.

So that day in March as I asked the small group of 5th graders to engage in a Slow Reveal Graph routine with me I was working really hard to listen and learn about how they reasoned about data and graphs.

As is the practice with the Slow Reveal Graph routine, I showed students a graph with some parts hidden and asked “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” and then slowly revealed the hidden sections of the graph along the way. I kept a fairly brisk pace with this part of the routine because I wanted to linger with a Hands-Down Conversation later. 

We started noticing and wondering about this image 

We continued to this one: 

Here are some ideas the students noticed and wondered about along the way:

  • The graph goes by year.
  • It’s a line graph.
  • There’s a blue part and an orange part.
  • Who is this for? What’s it about?
  • Could this be about population?
  • Is it about quitting cigarettes? Lung cancer death?

We finished by studying the complete graph:

*Images from this Slow Reveal Graph created by Jenna Laib

After the graph was completely revealed I asked them: What do you think this graph might look like in a few years? I used this opportunity to emphasize that I was interested in all kinds of reasoning–both reasoning that came directly from the graph and outside the graph. 

In Hands Down, Speak Out, we write about reasoning within the text and outside the text and how much of the time our reasoning is a mixture of the two:

I think we sometimes ignore outside of the text reasoning in math. We think that all students need to know is right there in the problem. But math is not neutral nor objective and we all bring our own perspectives to it. Data and graphing is a beautiful place to highlight this idea and value the understandings that students bring to the texts we present them. 

In this three-ish minute video clip below, you’ll see a Hands-Down Conversation with the small group of 5th graders (yes, you can have Hands-Down Conversations with small groups!) What kind of reasoning do you see these students using? Where do they use the text (graph) as the source of their evidence and where do they bring in their own outside the graph understandings and perspectives?

When the students start talking about their own understandings about cigarette smoking and vaping it can be tempting to say “That’s not math!” “Steer them back towards the math!” When one student says you can get high from vaping it can be tempting to jump in with a “correction.” I’d challenge that we actually need more spaces where students can merge understandings that they gain from within a math text and understandings that they bring from outside the text. In our teaching of reading we are constantly asking students to make connections to other books they’ve read and to their own lived experiences, but we leave less room for that in math.  

We believe that orienting students to the idea that we can reason within and outside a text (and we can do that across content areas) is powerful. If you have your copy of Hands Down, Speak Out handy, you can check out Micro-Lesson 5.3 “Supporting with Reasoning, Part 2: Digging Deeper into the Why” (pages 89-91) for more on this idea. 

As you listen to your students this year (in person or in the many ways we communicate online) how will you find ways to value different kinds of reasoning across the content areas?

*A special thank you to 5th grade teacher Yolanda Corado Cendejas and the group of brilliant 5th graders from her class you see in the video. We’ve learned a lot from Yolanda (you’ll see her in our book!) about not shying away from talking about important things with kids.

*Another special thank you to Jenna Laib (@jennalaib on Twitter) for curating the Slow Reveal Graph website and creating a resource that pushes us to listen for all kinds of student reasoning.

Posted in Uncategorized

Growing Classroom Dialogue with Micro-Lessons

Stream explorations

Small but Mighty

This summer I (Christy) have been going on lots of hikes with my seven and five-year old daughters, and we’ve been doing a little young naturalist learning along the way. On a recent stream exploration, I was showing both of them how water insect larvae often live on the underside of rocks, and when we lift a rock, we can discover their hiding places. We also speculated about which insect larvae might be the “babies” of the full grown water insects we observed in the stream (water striders, whirligig beetles etc.). During this science exploration, my younger daughter kept slipping on the large wet submerged rocks in the stream, losing her balance, and getting frustrated. My older daughter, however, was stepping mostly between the dry surfaces of the partially submerged rocks and feeling more comfortable. I broke away from our exploration momentarily to deliver a little micro-lesson to my younger daughter. 

“Look,” I said to her, pointing out an algae-covered underwater rock, “See the green algae there on that rock? The large rocks under the water are usually the slippery ones. Try stepping on the dry rocks out of the water or the little patches of small gravelly rocks, so you can keep your balance and keep exploring. Like that one right there, try stepping on it!” 

She stepped onto the large dry rock I had pointed out in front of her. “And that one?” she asked, pointing to the dry surface of another half-submerged rock. “Yes, you got it. That will help!” She continued moving about the stream, and we resumed flipping rocks and looking for water-life.

Suggestions like the one I gave my daughter about rock-stepping build upon one way that children naturally learn to navigate their world; by observing what those around them are doing and trying it on for themselves. Children are born competent learners and we can capitalize on this innate ability by offering them brief invitations to try on new skills.

What is a Dialogue Micro-Lesson?

We believe that one way to build robust classroom discourse is by orienting children to specific talk and listening moves and inviting them to “have a go” with them. Just as Christy offered her younger daughter a quick tip on traversing a stream and then turned it back over to her, we believe that orienting students to some ways dialogue works and then turning the conversation back over to them deepens the level of classroom talk while maintaining students’ agency and own ways of engaging in dialogue.

In a section of our new book, Hands Down, Speak Out we share twenty-eight dialogue micro-lessons designed to help classroom communities build on children’s natural ways of talking and listening. We wrote these micro-lessons based on our experiences listening to the ways children talk and listen to each other and thinking about ways we might nudge them to grow as talkers and listeners. And then we tried them out, many times, across grade levels and revised the micro-lessons based on what we learned. We know, for example, that all children come to our classrooms as reasoners. They talk about the “why” behind their ideas in their play and in social conversations. The goal of the micro-lessons around reasoning is to help children build on the ways they already talk about their reasoning and listen to the reasoning of others.

But before we go further, you may be wondering: “So, Christy and Kassia, what’s with the ‘micro’ in dialogue micro-lesson?” Why not call them mini-lessons or focus lessons like everyone else does? Believe it or not, this was not just a random attempt to be different, but a deliberate naming to indicate the way we use these lessons in quick and invitation ways, within and around the content that we are also teaching. We like to think of them like a productive nudge.

This is how we define a dialogue micro-lesson:

  1. It’s really short (just a few minutes). 
  2. We choose a particular micro-lesson based on what we notice as we listen to children in the classroom. We ask ourselves: “What dialogue move or tool would really help this group of students right now?” We most often draw from moves students in the class are already starting to use on their own.
  3. Dialogue micro-lessons have a predictable structure so students can quickly understand what the move is, why it is helpful, and how to try it out.
  4. We provide an opportunity for students to try out the move right away, with some guided support (such as naming what they have done when they try it, offering encouragement, and other facilitation moves)
  5. Dialogue micro-lessons are usually small nudges framed as suggestions or invitations. “You might try…” “One way of doing this is…” We don’t hold students accountable for “perfecting” or even using the move during the lesson. We trust that students will make the move their own and use it if it feels like a natural fit for their conversational style and what they’re trying to do within a conversation.

Seeing Micro-Lessons in Action

Below you’ll see an annotated micro-lesson from Hands Down, Speak Out

You can also check out this short video to see a dialogue micro-lesson in action. In this clip, Kassia is launching a conversation in Kelsey Friend’s first-grade class. Before this clip, the first graders have examined a picture of a collection of pennies and a collection of dimes in partnerships, and have been discussing the ambiguous question “Which is more?” We tune in right before they launch into a Hands-Down Conversation about this topic. 

In the above clip, you see how this lesson truly is “micro” in size, in this case about two minutes. In the micro-lesson, Kassia takes a moment to “pull back the curtain” on an important aspect of dialogue. This move, (explaining your reasoning) is one that she and the classroom teacher, Kelsey, have selected because they have observed students are already using and approximating it, and also see it as a good next step that would help these young conversationalists understand each other’s ideas a little better. You don’t see this in the clip, but it is super important to note that after the lesson, Kassia quickly passes the conversation back to the students so they can continue thinking about and playing with the math together. We believe that a dialogue micro-lesson like this keeps the ownership of the conversation in the students’ hands. Kassia resumes her position as a listener, and observes the ways the students explain their reasoning in their own ways.

What Will You Try Out?

You can see the version of this micro-lesson that appears in our book below, and hope that you will consider trying out other micro-lessons with your students in whatever format you are teaching this year. We’ve tried this in virtual settings too with good success! (The key being small groups – see our previous blog post “Unmuting Students’ Virtual Voices”.) We’d love to hear about how you are playing with dialogue micro-lessons in your classroom. Please tweet or comment with your ideas and reflections!

P.S. You can check out some more of the dialogue micro-lessons in the free preview Hands Down, Speak Out on the Stenhouse website.

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s Here! (Well, almost!)

We’re happy to share that Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math will be published on August 31! Whoop, whoop! Pre-orders are now open on the Stenhouse website. You can also preview several sections of the book there for free. We’re excited to share our ideas with you, and learn from teachers who try out Hands-Down Conversations both in person and virtually!

(A note that Stenhouse is always the least expensive option for buying our book and always has free shipping. And you get to stick it to the man (Amazon) by buying directly from Stenhouse!)

Posted in virtual learning

Unmuting Students’ Virtual Voices: A reflection on Distance Learning

A couple weeks ago, Christy wrote this post for the Stenhouse Blog. A repost of it is below.

Whether sitting by two kindergarteners sharing knee-to-knee, crouching down next to a book club or listening to an entire class circled around the carpet, my favorite classroom moments are listening to young students talk and grow ideas through conversation. On March 13 that came to an abrupt halt. Like many of us, I have spent the last couple months trying to figure out how to mesh the education world I know with the education world we are in now (and may be in for a while, in some shape or form.) 

As a literacy coach at my school, I’ve taken on several roles during this time of distance learning, including teaching whole classes, small groups, and one-on-one lessons. Simultaneously, I’ve served as teacher-parent to my own pre-kindergartener and first grader (who have also been on the receiving end of virtual learning experiences from their own hard-working schools). My experiences on both sides of the lens have left me reflecting a lot about this world of virtual and distance learning for our PreK through second graders, and how we can, in the words of Kelsey Sorum at The Writing Teachers, “do the most good, and do the least harm.” 

The Potential of Virtual Learning

First, I’ve seen how virtual whole-class experiences can do wonders for childrens’ sense of belonging to a community. This value cannot be diminished. It was amazing to me how the second graders I worked with went from largely reporting that they were feeling “depressed,” “sad,” and “lonely” during our earliest phone calls after school was canceled to saying that they were feeling “funny,” “happy,” and “good” once we had started meeting online as a class. 

  • I’ve watched my daughters delight in seeing their friends and excitedly consider what bit of family news they will share with their classmates when it is their turn. (Spoiler – a lot of it has to do with food.) 
  • I’ve watched classes of kindergarteners jump and squeal with joy when I show up with one of our favorite familiar puppet friends to visit them. 
  • I’ve heard about the joyful noises my friend Katie Keier and her kindergarteners make together in their virtual drum circles. 
  • Second graders at our school show up voluntarily for “lunch bunch,” sometimes coordinating ahead of time with their teacher and friends what foods they could all eat “together.” 

Anecdotal evidence indicates there is measurable value in offering opportunities to virtually gather as a whole class with a focus on fostering a sense of belonging. (Note: I emphasize the word “offer,” because no young child should be compelled to join an online learning session during this crisis or penalized if they do not wish to participate. My preschooler has let me know several times that she is all done with the conversation, and we’ve simply left a class with a wave. This is not a natural human mode of interaction, and should be optional.)

The Challenges of Virtual Learning

However, when it comes to academics, I have to really take a pause and consider whether a whole-class virtual lesson is the best format for this age. I firmly believe in the role that student conversation plays in engagement, agency, and constructing knowledge and understanding. I also know that giving our students the space to express their varied perspectives, experiences, and unique opinions is a critical first step towards building and/or maintaining a community that honors all children. When students can’t even hear each others’ voices, we cannot hope to begin to do the important work of understanding each others’ stories.

With sixteen or twenty or twenty-five young students in a virtual classroom, we almost always have to ask them to turn their mics off. Or we have to literally remove their voices by muting them ourselves. There is simply too much background noise in all the different houses for them to be able to hear any single person speak when all the mics are on. This logistical issue increases the chances that a lot of teaching we do in this format will fall into the “IRE” pattern (teacher initiates, student responds, teacher evaluates), which so many teachers have worked to move away from in their classrooms. In addition, when the teacher plays gate-keeper to the conversation, she chooses who speaks, what topics are discussed, and what viewpoints are valued. These decisions are never neutral, and because the majority of elementary school teachers are white women, these decisions come with a set of biases that privilege white children over students of color. 

Remember the “do no harm” mantra I mentioned before? We need to deeply consider these issues as we push forward with distance learning for young children. Yes, there are ways to get students interacting virtually without having to turn on all their mics – there are clever apps, platforms, and interactive slide templates. These tools are awesome, and thank goodness for these wonderful innovations and the people out there who are teaching us how to use them. They help increase engagement and give teachers some feedback on what students are thinking, particularly with older students, who have the technological dexterity and literacy to navigate them. But I come back to the belief that authentic out-loud TALK is a crucial component of learning for all students, and for our youngest students it is a non-negotiable tool for learning. We should not be willing to put that to the side, even in this temporary situation. 

Making the most of Virtual Learning

So how do we keep student talk alive in this virtual environment? It seems to me that we can best do this by using a small-group session format for academic instruction. When there are less than seven or so young children gathered, we get to the point where those “mute” buttons might be released. Closer to four or five children, and our faces might be large enough on the screen to read facial expressions. Depending on the platform we are using, we might even be able to see all the students on the screen at the same time. Then, student conversation can start to flow naturally, and no longer has to pass through the teacher-as-gatekeeper. Students can begin to “own” the talk again. What does that sound like? I am sure many of you have your own beautiful moments to share. Here are a few of my own examples:

  • A few weeks ago, I watched my first-grade daughter engage in a small group math lesson where the teacher asked students to work out a problem, and then the students talked, sharing their strategies for solving the problem with each other while the teacher recorded their strategies on a virtual white board. A simple but powerful moment, this carried over to the next day when my daughter was solving a different problem with me and said, “I’m just going to write down here how I got that, okay?” (Umm. Yes! This was huge. Evidence of transfer of learning taken on in a virtual environment.)
  • Last week I signed on for my one-on-one reading lesson with a student who had recently received a bag of donated books. I had a digital guided reading text ready to pull up and share with her for our lesson, but then she waved one of her new-to-her books in front of the camera, saying, “Look at this one! Today I’m going to read you Peppa the Pig’s Ballet Lesson.” (“By all means!” I thought. Reading engagement, student agency, and natural conversation!)
  • A few days ago, I hosted two second-grade writers in a virtual small-group writing workshop. I watched as they bounced back and forth between working with their heads down and holding up their writing, talking about the superhero characters they were creating and revising as they went. 

“Hey, look at this, how I drew my guy. Do you see he got bit by the Killer Wolf?”  

“Yeah, What powers does yours have? Does yours have super speed?”

“Oh, yeah, umm… he can…I think mine can just say a word and he can go right to that place. Like Honduras, El Salvador, Virginia, you know, anywhere.”

“Woah, cool.”

These moments have given me hope because they mirror the kinds of student-led learning and student-led talk that I am used to and love. The kind of talk-rich environment that does not require the teacher to initiate, evaluate or dominate. As we look towards a fall and/or winter when some distance learning will possibly probably remain, I want to take these memories and reflections with me. I also would like us to think collectively, as educators, about how we are scheduling our digital learning for the youngest students. Designing a model where most (or all) academic learning takes place with a very small number of children at a time may be the best way to bring our student voices back to the way they need to be – ON.

— Christy

Posted in Uncategorized

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.)