Under, Over and Beyond Words: Strategies for Observing Talk in Classrooms
In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning, Peter Johnston writes about the importance of the ways teachers talk with students. He notes, "Teachers have very different ways of thinking about who they are, who their students are, and what they think they are doing, and these ways of thinking strongly influence the language they use automatically" (p. 82).
Talk is the engine that drives learning in any classroom. By focusing on conversation, colleagues and coaches can assist their peers by teasing out some of those patterns that are most helpful to (or most inhibit) the growth of the learning community.
Observing talk in classrooms is the first step toward helping teachers understand the language they use automatically. It's one thing to acknowledge talk is crucial in classrooms; far harder to analyze, reflect upon, and move toward changing talk patterns.
Here are some possibilities for classroom observations focused on talk. You can start by asking the teacher what he or she is noticing about talk in her classroom before the observation:
Once you have a sense of the teacher's interests, you might try some of these alternatives to traditional notes during classroom observations, and see how they affect your view of talk among teachers and students. It's a good idea to ask the teacher who will be observed to pick the focus in advance. That way, he or she has more interest and investment in your findings:
After you've completed the observation, share your notes by asking questions about your findings in a way that doesn't judge or criticize. For example, it isn't necessarily good or bad that girls talk more during a certain session, but it can reveal something about the dynamics of the class. If your colleague senses a genuine openness to understand first, without any judgment involved, you will likely provoke a deeper reflection and analysis of the classroom events.
Johnston, Peter. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.