Like all teachers, I genuinely find students to be so interesting! They have such a wondrous view of the world and how they formulate new ideas. Listening to them talk to one another and explain their thinking helps to build classroom community and confidence. They learn to discourse and disagree respectfully, but also how to change their thinking as they learn from one another. At the beginning of this year, I blogged about building community and that lists some strategies to start creating a safe classroom environment no matter what time of year. Building community and safe spaces is the first step toward creating an environment where students feel comfortable to share their thinking and learning out loud.

When I want to know more about student thinking, I always consider my intentions. I wonder what I think they might say and how I might respond to them. For example, if I am working in math on visible thinking and I want to elicit specific vocabulary, I might listen for those keywords. As importantly, I also think about what I might do if I don’t hear those words. How can I validate their thinking and also provide the words they need in a way that isn’t intimidating?

When I first started teaching, I always noted what students were saying. I was listening for the right answers. Now in large group discussions, I’m listening to who shares, trying to make space for those who don’t always share, give thinking time, and try to have students respond to each other instead of looking at me to see if they have the right answer. Sometimes that looks like think/pair/share time or I might have them write down two ideas before sharing. We explicitly practise sentence starters that allow for students to participate even if someone shares the same ideas first, such as “I agree with ___, and I also think ___” or “When ___ said that, it changed my thinking”. We also practise how to respond when we have different opinions, for example, “I didn’t think about it that way. My first thought was ….” or “Thank you for sharing. I wondered about….” I spend a lot of time teaching and modelling how to acknowledge each other’s ideas respectfully.

At times, small focus groups really help me to listen for specific ideas. Often, when I am looking for information I use this strategy to coach student learning. In small group literacy instruction, asking the right question gives me some insight into their thinking, such as “I wonder what this word might mean” or “I am not sure why that character might have said that. Do you have an idea?” These kinds of questions can be challenging for students so I find they are best given in a small group or one on one where I can coach students through conversation.

When I started to focus on listening as part of my practice, I learned so much more about students. They became more comfortable talking about their ideas and thinking with me and with their peers. I would often model my thinking process aloud, wondering about ideas, and questioning what I was thinking. I think it gave them the message that they could share imperfectly too – we don’t have to have exactly the right answer before we share some of our beginning ideas with one another. We can share the process and in this way, we can build a safe community together.

I know that I learn better when talking with other teachers.It helps me to develop my thoughts and gives me the opportunity to learn from others. One thing I have learned in all my years of teaching is how important that is for students, too: the space to think through ideas out loud. A space to learn with and from one another as a community.


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