The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Collaborative Discussions

Today is Tuesday. My district has asked that I submit student progress reports by 11:59 pm tonight. My students are still expected to be at school tomorrow and on Thursday, both full days. At this point of the year, there are some teachers who would surely be ready to throw in the towel and fill the day with fun, non-essential activities; things that I would tend to refer to as “fluff” or, to use a word that sits in my categories/tags list and is rarely used, floccinaucinihilipilification.

I am not one of those teachers.

I realise that any formative or summative assessments I do at this point will not count toward students’ final progress reports, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to be assessing. Assessing is something that I do all day, every day. If I don’t know what my students know, if I don’t know what they are capable of doing, if I don’t know what they have learned, if I don’t know how well I have taught then, quite frankly, I have failed to do my job. Knowing these things is what assessment is all about. Assessment isn’t just giving a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-based test. Assessment is “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” And that happens in a lot of ways every day.

So even though today was the last Tuesday of my students’ fourth grade career, even though it was the last Tuesday of this academic year, and even though we are now 13 hours and 30 minutes of school time (actually just 12 hours of instructional time) away from the end of the year, I am still teaching and I am still assessing.

Today I decided to teach my students about participating in “grand conversations.” A grand conversation is a collaborative discussion among all the members of the classroom in which students ask each other questions, respond to each other’s questions, and listen closely to one another so that they can respond to what others have said. Some of the phrases I want my students to be used to using are among the following:

  • I think . . . because . . .
  • I (also) agree with . . . because . . .
  • I (also) disagree with . . . because . . .
  • . . . ‘s comment reminds me of  . . .
  • . . . , can you explain what you meant when you said . . . ?

These are simple statements, but they are so helpful in guiding these conversations. To practice participating in a grand conversation, I read Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen to the class, displaying it on my Promethean ActivPanel as I did so. This allowed the students to see the text and the pictures and refer to them as we discussed the question of whether or not lions should be permitted to be in the library.

One student started the conversation by sharing her opinion. Another student began to say that he agreed with her, but instead of explaining why, he went off on a tangent that indicated that he was more interested in sharing his own thinking than in responding to her initial comment. I had to stop him and explain how the sentence starters are used. Then I called on another student. (Yes, we are still early enough in the process that I still need to facilitate the conversation.) I later came back to the second student who stated that the first student’s comment made him think about something else.

The entire conversation went fairly well, with many students participating. We ran out of time, however, so not all had a chance to give input. What shocked me, however, was how many students were upset that they didn’t get to share, including students who normally refrain from participating!

We will do a couple more grand conversations tomorrow and Thursday before students head home for the summer. It is my hope that many will remember doing this so when they start fifth grade they will be able to access the memory and jump into the process.

Like I said, we are still working and still learning. We have have just two days of school left, but they are going to be busy ones, with lots of learning and applying!

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my class reached a consensus on the question and decided that tame lions should be allowed in libraries as long as they don’t hurt anybody or ruin the books or furniture.)


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