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From Silence to Conversation: Breaking Down the Wall One Essential Shift at a Time

Ivannia Soto and Tonya Ward Singer in conversation with Dan Alpert

Dan: What is one of the most common barriers to facilitating the shift from silence to oracy for multilingual learners, and how can we work to overcome it?

Tonya: This shift is about changing habits, collectively, so that every student has opportunities to engage in peer conversations in every lesson, every day. This shift is imperative to ensure multilingual multicultural learners, especially English learners (EL), have voice in classroom communities and access to intellectually rich content and language learning.

One common barrier with this shift is human habit—as structuring peer-to-peer conversations in every lesson requires, for many of us, doing things differently than how we were taught. Many of us learned in classrooms where lecture was the norm, and students only spoke occasionally one-at-a-time if they raised a hand to speak. Even in our adult lives, we often experience the same traditional discourse default in lectures (e.g. Ted Talks) and meetings.

It takes awareness of our discourse default, and an intention to change inherited habits to make our teaching more interactive. The good news is we can do this with intention and practice—through planning peer conversation strategies into our lessons and making conversations routine.

Committing to changing habits is easiest when we collaborate with a shared vision and a compelling reason to change. Across schools and systems, this change requires ALL educators, not just the language specialists, to transform teaching from traditional to interactive, from student silence to student conversation.

Start with the why to build buy-in and collective commitment to increasing equitable student engagement in peer conversations across all classrooms and schools. The many benefits of this shift include:

• Increasing the percent of students who engage.

• Increasing the opportunities for all kids to talk.

• Creating low-risk opportunities for students to make meaning, problem-solve or engage in productive struggle.

• Accelerate academic language development connected to content.

• Increase opportunities to gather formative data—about both content and language goals—during your teaching. Deepen active engagement of multilingual learners in every classroom and content area, all day long.

• Keep the “why” of this shift front and center, and take actions individually, and collectively to realize the vision of interactive, equitable classrooms in which all students engage, and all voices are heard.

Dan: Can you provide teachers with some strategies for enacting peer conversations in distance and blended learning environments?

Ivannia: As I work with teachers, I recommend the 15-minute rule, where teacher talk is organized in 15-minute segments of time throughout a class period or an hour. This is not to say that teachers would only talk during the first 15-minutes of class, but that they would “chunk” or organize their teaching in 15-minute segments in order to plan for student engagement. In the book Tools for Teaching, Davis (1993) found that “…student attention during lectures tends to wane after approximately 10–15 minutes.” Researchers Wankat (2002) and Benjamin (2002) also suggest that attention is highest at the beginning of a lecture. Such research about student attention during direct instruction or lectures remind us that the person talking the most, is learning the most. In that way, we must intentionally plan for student talk, or it will not happen.

The 15-minute rule has become even more important in a distance or blended learning environment where it can be easier for students to become passive learners, or for Zoom fatigue to take effect. In addition to distance or blended learning constraints, it is important to remember what it’s like to stay focused on teacher talk in a language in which we are not fully proficient. Moments of pausing and checking for understanding become especially essential for multilingual learners in a virtual setting. For all of these reasons, the 15-minute rule assists teachers with organizing their teaching in 15-minute segments and intentionally planning for student talk or engagement opportunities after those 15-minutes.

With face-to-face instruction, I typically recommend two partner talks at each of the first two 15-minute intervals and ending with a more structured Think-Write-Pair-Share (see 15-minute rule diagram above). In a blended or distance learning environment, after the first two 15-minute segments of time, teachers allow for processing time with a chat box response or allow students to unmute themselves to respond to open-ended questions. For the last 15-minute segment, I recommend a breakout for a longer discussion. As with face-to-face instruction, for both chat box or breakout discussions, it is essential for teachers to pre-plan questions that are open-ended (Depth of Knowledge Levels 3 and 4), thus requiring use of more detailed and longer stretches of language.

Dan: Chapter 5 of Breaking Down the Wall proposes that EL Shadowing can be an effective catalyst for shifting from Silence to Conversation. How can the Shadowing protocol be implemented in distance learning settings and what have been the results?

Ivannia: EL Shadowing (second edition of the book to be published by Corwin Press in Spring 2021 and titled Shadowing Multilingual Learners) is a way to spend a day in the life of a multilingual learner with a specific lens on their speaking and listening experiences. As such, shadowing multilingual learners in a virtual setting has become even more essential, in order to understand and meet their specific linguistic and cultural needs from a distance. At a time when educators are also concerned about learning loss and whether the needs of specific groups of students are being met virtually, it is essential to continue observing multilingual learners in virtual settings. Additionally, when schools return to instruction in a face-to-face setting, shadowing multilingual learners can reaffirm the importance of prioritizing the needs of multilingual learners.

That being said, there are also several ways that educators can continue to shadow multilingual learners in a virtual setting, described below.

• Record your own lesson in Zoom or your own learning management system (note: please make sure that you have necessary permissions to record first). Then, select one of your own multilingual learners, review the video at a later time, and complete the shadowing protocol at every 5-minute interval.

• Shadow one of your own multilingual learners during a breakout or group session. Please note that it can be difficult to shadow in real time while also addressing student needs in groups. For this option, you may also want to record the breakout, review the video later, and then complete the shadowing protocol at every 5-minute interval.

• Request permission for a substitute teacher and permission to observe in a colleague’s virtual classroom. Shadow a multilingual learner in that colleague’s virtual classroom.

• Shadow using the Jeff Zwiers videos (all nine videos, and take down activity at the beginning and end of each video). Keep in mind that these videos are exemplary classroom situations, which can also be helpful in terms of the possibilities for classroom talk with multilingual students.

Dan: How can school leaders play an active role in implementing the shift from silence to conversation both schoolwide and systemwide?

Tonya: At the system level, collaborate across roles and departments to align professional learning initiatives so your focus on equitable classroom conversations doesn’t feel like “one more thing” but is deeply connected to your priority change-leadership goals. Alignment is necessary to go deep, and leverage your resources including precious professional learning time and the focus of instructional coaches, learning communities, and administrator walk-throughs, in support of realizing success.

Build capacity of all teachers to structure and scaffold conversations in the context of what they teach every day. Go beyond strategy workshops and support the job-embedded professional learning that is foundational to transforming classroom practice for student impact. At the site level, engage job-alike teacher teams (e.g. department or grade-level) in building clarity together with respect to what effective student conversations in their disciplines look like, in co-planning high-level conversations aligned to local curriculum, and in collaborating to make student conversations routine.

Lead a culture of learning in which taking risks, gathering data and reflecting on data to change practice is the norm. Teacher inquiry cycles are important to go beyond simply implementing strategies, to actually refining the ways we teach in response to the unique and varied assets and needs of the students we serve. Help educators collectively and individually use conversation data to get honest about who is speaking and who is silent, and to use conversation data as powerful, real-time formative data about student successes and challenges with content and language learning goals (Singer & Zwiers, 2016).

Be a leader who leads for a compelling vision of student impact, not simply implementation of adopted strategies. A focus on strategies as the end goal communicates the idea that “we did the strategy and thus did our jobs,” and removes our collective responsibility to adapt business as usual until we realize equitable classrooms and schools.

Leading with a vision on impact, by contrast, ensures we focus on a shared vision of equitable classroom discourse—and have the humility and courage to use data to adapt our approaches until we realize our goal.

Benjamin LT, Jr. Lecturing. In: The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer, edited by Davis SF and Buskist W. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002, p. 57–67.

Davis BG. Tools for Teaching. San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Wankat PC. The Effective Efficient Professor: Scholarship and Service. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Singer, T. & Zwiers, J. (2016 April). What conversations can capture. Educational Leadership, 73(7). Retrieved from:

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