Having Real Conversations about Books: A Look at Reading Partnerships in 6th Grade
Dina Moskowitz is a middle school Humanities teacher and department mentor at Creative Arts Charter School in San Francisco, CA. A long-time participant in the Mills Teacher Scholars program, she has focused much of her inquiry work on the question of how to get reluctant readers to passionately read, write and talk about texts.
What does it mean to have a good conversation? If you think about your own daily interactions, you probably have about ten different types of conversations daily. Your communication with someone at the grocery store has a very distinct tone and expectation from your conversation with your boss, which in turn is pretty different from when you meet your best friend for coffee. Not only the topics, but the expected body language and level of comfort you can use vary widely.
As adults, we usually can assume the correct posture and language at a moment’s notice without much thought, but when I started looking closely at partner reading conversations in my sixth grade humanities class, I soon learned that in order to have students engage in thoughtful, authentic conversation, I had to begin by teaching the basics of what is expected in these kinds of conversations.
A lot has been written about the concept of code switching for urban students, but It’s not just low SES students who need support in this area. I found almost all my students needed to be taught what I meant by an academic conversation, even in middle school.
I spent the year trying to uncover the layers of partner conversations through my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry. What did it mean to have an authentic conversation about books? My long term-goal is to get students to be lifelong readers (see my older blog posts here). I wanted to couple that love of reading with thoughtful reflection that then gets shared with a partner who pushes the student’s thinking even further. The question was, how to do that?
By watching and listening to recorded conversations over the course of the school year, I realized that there are many elements to a good conversation, with only one of them being the content of what kids were talking about.
Learning about Conversing
In September, I began my inquiry by pairing my students with their partners and saying, “go talk about your book.” Not surprisingly, those conversations did not go that well. Students would be across the room from each other and tell me that they were meeting. They had their backs to each other. They were in other partners’ conversations. It was such a mess that I realized we needed to restart.
We set up guidelines: knee to knee, eye to eye, far enough that you can’t touch another partner group but close enough to your partner that you can touch, stay on topic. Each of these ‘rules’ came about from observing what students weren’t doing. Through modeling as a whole group, practicing and reflecting on the practice, students began to look like they were having conversations. I’d look around the room and feel a sense of accomplishment. “Okay, we’re getting somewhere.”
But then, I began recording the conversations. And, shall we say, they weren’t the most compelling.
The following is an example of a conversation between two boys, G and C, from November. G is an ELL from Mongolia who is quite driven. C is a bright student who has some difficulty with authority and often does not work up to his potential. In this conversation they were asked to talk about how the author uses chapters:
G: Okay, so I’m reading Percy Jackson, Lightning Thief. And I didn’t get to a new chapter.
C: Yeah, the chapters in that book are long.
G: This dog like turned into a big lion, that lion is poisonous. That dog got breathed fire.
C: How are chapters used?
G: Well, I didn’t get to a new chapter, but time , or they go to another place, or like when time changes
C and G: We’re done.
I had hoped that they would jump from answering my question to delving further into the book, the characters, the different elements of the story. I wanted to see them engaged with their partner and engaged with the text, but this was the extent of the conversation. And this was quite common.
So my next goal was to think about how to help students have more thoughtful conversations. Using the Teacher’s College Reading Project Units of Study, I created a routine for reading partnerships. I would introduce a topic comprehension (such as developing a theory about a character using different reading strategies), model it, do a read aloud, and then send students off to meet with their partners with this topic focus. At the end of the conversations, they would journal about what they talked about so that I could grade their weekly reading.
In teaching different concepts of reading I tried a variety of ways to scaffold for students. I gave sentence starter sheets with fill in the blanks or had students journal before talking. But many students simply filled in the blanks of the sentence starter sheets or completed their journal and then took turns reading these to their partner. That wasn’t what I was striving for; it took away all elements of conversation.
Through watching all of this and analyzing the data with my Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues, I realized an indicator of success was what I titled “back and forths.” I had a goal of students having conversations with more than two back and forths, with one back and forth defined as both students talking on the same subject.
Allowing for Student Choice
When I asked students how they thought we might accomplish this task, they told me they needed to be reading the same book. How could they go deeper if they hadn’t read the book? Also, they wanted to pick their partners because what if they didn’t want to read the same book as their partner? So we switched to a model of choosing books with a partner.
I returned to the class structure of modeling first with a read aloud and then having students talk with partners about their shared books. Partner conversations took on a new tenor. In looking around the room, I felt excited. Students were following our rules of conversation, they seemed excited about the texts. In listening to the ones that seemed to be going well (they both had the book, they had both read to the same point) they were now talking about the plot of the book. This was encouraging, but I was hoping they could go even further.
How to Develop Deeper Conversations?
One way that I was able to develop more rigorous indicators of success for all of my students was by listening to partnerships that seemed to be working well so that I could learn from them. Most groups were simply summarizing their book and then often making predictions, but I did find one group that showed me what the possibilities could be for sixth grade. In March, I listened to a conversation from two of my strong students (See Box A).
This conversation had a few successful elements. First, I noticed two very engaged participants, doing the very thing they were supposed to be doing. Second, I heard multiple back and forths, with students building on each other’s thoughts–they didn’t need even need to let the other person finish because they were being authentic and adding on. Third, they were going beyond the text. They were asking questions, thinking about the ‘what if.’ Fourth, they referred to the text in saying, “Remember, when the book said…” They were using the reading strategies in an organic and as-needed manner.
Ending the Year: What Did I Learn?
I set out to have students have real, authentic conversations about their books. Did I achieve that? A metaphor of cooking comes to mind. Through watching conversations carefully, I learned about the ingredients of a good conversation about books. Some students were natural cooks and did it on their own, but most needed each step broken down for them. By the end of the year many were doing the steps in isolation, but not fully integrating them into the perfect meal.
Tips to Facilitate Successful Partner Conversations about Books
- Teach students to be present with their body. (Face your partner, sit near them, etc.)
- Remind them to be present with their mind. (Have read the book, be excited about the book, show interest.)
- Find a balance that works for your class between choosing books/partners and teacher-assigned. The goal is that students are excited enough by their books to be able to talk about them. Teachers can engineer ways to get students into new partnerships. For example, bringing in exciting new books that students want to read.
- Model thoughtful conversations as a group. Slowly ramp up the conversations. Start small with summaries and slowly push them to go beyond simple retell to analysis. Ideally, students will begin to integrate the reading strategies into their conversations and engage with the process in an authentic way.