The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 2 - Page 52

Content Contributions


Classroom Close-up

As I looked around my sixth-grade classroom, I saw four groups of students actively engaged in a discussion based on our read aloud book, Discovering Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2013). I knew my students felt safe because I heard every voice in the respective groups. As I listened in, I heard Stephen say that he noticed a racial barrier that needed to be broken down. I heard ideas growing when Sarah piggybacked off Stephen’s idea and said that she felt lucky to be able to go to a diverse school. I saw my students pushing each others’ thinking, and negotiating meaning when Sam added, “I think that no matter what we are trained to think, we should always give people a chance.” No longer were my students uninvolved in literature discussion. Instead their faces showed they were deep in thought, and their voices eagerly shared their own views. My students were having what Zwiers and Crawford (2011) call academic conversations.

So just how did I nurture this kind of accountable talk in my classroom? I began by partnering with a professor from Saint Louis University, Dr. Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, who was interested in helping teachers develop accountable talk with their students. We would meet once a week. She would observe my students’ discussions, and then, we would talk about her observations. It was through our collaborative brainstorming that I was able to begin to create academic conversations that pushed thinking.

I started by giving my students journal topics on which to write. I felt that by giving the students ideas to think about more deeply, they would be better prepared for discussions. We centered our global literature read-aloud books around the themes of barriers, equity, and justice. The texts challenged my students to think about barriers that prohibit equity and justice. They began to think about how they could be allies instead of bystanders. They began to explore what it means to be invisible. They began to consider characters’ relationships from multiple perspectives. Through conversations with each other, they began to think more critically about the literature. More importantly, they began to think critically about their place in the world.

Looking closely at two students in our class, Sarah and Sam, highlights the ways I worked to support more critical thinking through conversation. Sarah is a bright, caring, young lady who is extremely shy. She would rather do chores than speak in the classroom. If she was called on in class, you could see her visibly shrink before your eyes. As I worked to understand Sarah, I decided I would like to try to help her find her voice. I started by studying her journal entries closely. Her entries were thoughtful and reflective. For example, she wrote the following:

I made a connection between my thinking and Wes’ thinking. I also think that even though segregation is illegal, it still goes on today. This is a problem that the world may never overcome, but we need to try. Wes feels guilty about how the people live in Africa compared to how he lives in the Bronx, and when I hear about poverty, I feel guilty because of all the things I take for granted.