Thursday, November 14, 2013


Reading and writing float on a sea of talk
                                                                James Britton

I was first introduced to Britton's quote when I was in graduate school at The Ohio State University.
It still proves true in my teaching and learning encounters and in my reading and writing experiences.

Today, however, I would modify Britton's quote to read :
Reading and writing, and community float on a sea of talk

We are growing  readers and writers and learners in our classrooms-- they  flourish in community.

The glue that holds communities together is shared practices, protocols and language that support  each member of the community and also promote  the common good all members.

It takes time to develop the conditions of trust and caring in which our writers can share their finished work, works-in-process, and potential writing ideas.

Our writers are entitled to both an authentic audience and honest feedback.  Sharing their work provides affirmation of their ideas and process, opportunities to hear what is working in their piece, as well as suggestions for revisions.

In addition, the work shared by our student writers becomes models of writing for other writers-- and enters the community collection of  mentor texts.

For more on  practices and language support writing communities and  undergird sharing writing, see an earlier post,  Responding to Writing.

As we foster supportive communities what are the  conversations we need to have?

What are the discussions in which  we must engage our students?

How do we facilitate the discourses in our classrooms and other learning communities?

Although I knew about Britton's sea of talk, I first realized the power of language to mediate learning as I trained to be Reading Recovery teacher.  I witnessed the miracle of  well-chosen words and strategic conversations to accelerate  learning.  I marveled each time my words produced an immediate positive response. For information about Reading Recovery, click here.

I was hooked on the power of language.

I began to carefully consider language and conversations  in my classrooms.
I began to develop intentional language and initiate strategic conversations..

Several recent publications support us as we consider the sea of talk we facilitate in our classrooms.

Peter Johnston has given us two treasures which highlight the importance of the language we use ( and foster) in our classrooms ---and any time we have conversations.

In Choice Words, he examines how  effective teachers  use language,  not only to teach, but to also build  powerful relationships,  create supportive learning communities, and  foster strategic and critical thinking.

Teachers play a critical role in arranging the discursive histories from which these children speak. Talk is the central tool of their trade. With it they mediate children's activity and experience and help them make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves.

Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives extends this conversation about the power of language. demonstrating how we create, expand or restrict the worlds of learners.
Sometimes it is just one word that makes all the difference....
Introducing a spelling test saying, "Let's see how many words you know" is different than saying, "Let's see how many words you already know" It is only on word, but the already suggests that any words the child knows are ahead of expectation, and most important, that there is nothing permanent about what is known and unknown.

 We create, open  (and reduce) worlds with  the words we choose.
As teachers, we choose our words and, in the process, construct the classroom world of our students and ourselves. The worlds we construct offer opportunities and constraints....
Teaching is planned opportunism... When we  put our plans into action, children offer us opportunities to say something,or not, and the choices we make affect what happens next.   Teaching requires constant improvisation. It is jazz.
We create the communities the lead ultimately lead to trust, growth, intellectual maturity and conversations at the highest levels.  This begins with our youngest learners, continues through the university, and carries into our world and everyday life.

 I recently received a big box of Amazon books--a common  and  frequent occurrence in my house--and among the treats was Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings .

 Building on the notions that intentional language is important, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford introduce us to the academic, intellectual aspects of discourse in shaping who we are, what we know and what we believe.
Conversations strengthen our comprehension of new ideas.
Conversations are also powerful sculptors.  They shape our identities, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. We have all had intense conversations from which we walked away ( or lost sleep)  mulling over the ideas that we discussed. Conversations leave us pondering and processing ideas for hours,days, and even years. These ideas in turn, contribute to the inner dialogues that we hold in our heads throughout each day. (Vygotsky,1986), which sculpt our thoughts--whether we like it or not.
More than we realize we are the product of thousands of conversations.
Academic conversations, or sustained conversations in which we learn from each other and gain new understandings and ideas, are critical for our learners. In order for this to happen, we  have to be able to make the verbal and intellectual moves that foster and further these conversations.

We learn to paraphrase, negotiate ideas, clarify and extend our thoughts,  and support our thinking with details, examples and instances.  We must also learn to challenge and oppose ideas, agreeably. And most importantly, we must be able to critically analyze ideas and synthesize new thinking.

We learn the moves of academic conversations

What are the words that will foster new worlds?
What conversations will open a young--or old--- mind?

What conversations do we need to have to create community?
How do we respond to the many important conversations that we witness? In which we participate?

Click here to read my Haibun written in response to the many rich conversations in which our CAWP Teacher Inquiry Group engaged.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Think about the last important, sensitive or meaningful conversation in which you participated.
This can be an intimate, friendly, business or academic conversation.

Recall as much of the exchange as you can.
What words stand out from that interaction?

What were the effects of the words you selected?

Write an essay about the importance of the conversation or the selected words.
Write a poem capturing the mood of the conversation.

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