Speak Up!: Authentic Book Talks

I am good at asking questions.  I’m sure a lot of you are, too.  And for most of my teaching career, I’ve actually defined my job as asking questions of my students: questions lead to connections, to critical thinking, to closer examination of one’s own ideas.   Over the last year or so, though, I’ve come to re-examine that role.  After all, isn’t it students who should be asking questions?

In their 2013 text, Notice and Note, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst describe the result of this teacher-centered approach to education, as it applies to student readers:

…we saw…  too many readers who finish the page or the chapter and then, rather than express a thought, ask a question, or leap into conversation, look up at the teacher and wait.

I (sometimes) have that silent classroom, filled with students waiting, some eagerly, for me to lead them to my interpretation of a poem, scene, or text.   What Beers and Probst propose instead is that we teach students to recognize six significant types of scenes that occur across all types of literature (they call these signposts), and for each scene, to ask a single question.  These signposts scaffold the path for students to notice and interpret significant moments in all literature, to speculate, to connect, and to authentically inquire.  And, unlike my well-crafted, text-specific questions, these signposts are transferable, which means that they can empower even reluctant readers.

What really excites me about this strategy – beyond fostering independent critical thinking and engagement – is the ability to directly instruct and capture speaking and listening skills as students use these signposts to engage in book talks with a partner.  Starting in the fall, I will roll out these strategies to my freshman English students.  Each week, I will ask them to record a minute or two of their partner book talk using YouTube Capture, and to share the link with me in their Digital Portfolios.  In a non-1:1 environment, teachers could establish a Book Talk station, where students could record conversations at an interval used by the teacher. These captured student conversations can be used

  • directly in whole-class discussion following their partner book talks to guide listening and speaking strategies
  • to self-assess with a discussion rubric
  • to  show student growth  in literary analysis and speaking and listening over the course of a semester and year.

Moreover, as a teacher, I will be able to hear much more of what my students have to say – and this strategy will give them the opportunity to share the best parts of their discussions.

As I put this strategy into practice, I will update with sample student discussions – and with any further best practices.


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