Teacher Scholar Voices

First Graders Lead Their Learning: What Happens When You Take the Teacher Out of The Talk in Student Book Groups?

Teacher Scholar Voices

Academic discussion opens a space for students to become aware of their ideas and use academic language to express those ideas with others. By setting up autonomous academic discussion groups, I wanted to make the students the leaders in those discussions. I would later discover that as a result of the structure of those groups, power shifted not only from me to the students– but also became shared between students. Central to this discovery was the use of multiple modalities in the discussions, like game pieces, hand signals, language frames, and graphic organizers that gave equitable access to all students. I came to realize that this surprising shift between students was a product of the fact that quality academic discussion in a dual immersion context rests not only upon academic traits like comprehension skills and language, but also on social-emotional components like risk-taking, social-awareness, and empathy.

Excellent Teachers Strive for Student Autonomy

For my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry project last year, I wanted to know, “What would it look like for first graders to have an academic discussion about text, all by themselves?” This question was inspired in part by the notion that excellent teachers strive to remove themselves from the center of the learning environment, appearing and disappearing when necessary. By consistently using and modeling strong practices and scaffolds, excellent teachers gradually become more and more superfluous to their students because they have empowered the students to exercise skills independently. What would I need to do to remove myself from academic discussions in my classroom?

As part of my practice from previous years, I facilitated academic discussions in circles and guided reading groups. In those academic discussions I asked the initial questions as well as the follow-up questions with students to elaborate their responses. I was both the model and an active participant, redirecting and monitoring student engagement. When students spoke, they often looked at me, as if they were sharing their ideas only with me, as opposed to sharing with the whole class. In previous years, I also facilitated academic discussions using pair-share where students had to demonstrate their thinking and present each other’s ideas to the class. For this teaching structure I planned the sentence frames, guided brainstorming of possible answers, and again, monitored adherence to the norms set to ensure equity and accountability.

This year, I wanted students to facilitate their own discussions – for them to do all the talking, asking, following-up and monitoring. In short, my goal was an autonomous group conversation that allowed the flow of ideas, with no one student dominating or left out. The students would take the responsibility and my active role would fade. The goals of my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry was two-tiered: first, I wanted students to analyze complex text; second, I wanted them to talk about the text with each other, without me facilitating.

If students could defend an opinion, ask good questions and build upon each other’s thinking about a text, they would be practicing what is expected at the highest levels of academia. If they could authentically interface with each other about texts autonomously in the classroom, my hope was that they would start to do so outside of the classroom as well. This would be a first grade version of book clubs – and by students becoming active readers, reading would be seen as a practice of thinking and responding, a social task, not simply independent decoding.

Rigorous intellectual engagement, student voice and autonomy are values that are often granted lip service in education circles. But to move beyond the rhetoric, I needed to find concrete protocols and structures that brought them alive in my room. My inquiry question set out to find and promote protocols and structures to do that. In the process, I recorded those protocols and structures through video, writing samples and informal observation. This documentation was important to chart student progress and refine my teaching practices. It was also important because it would provide an authentic assessment of the learning goals.

The Learning Goals of the Inquiry

The learning goals for my inquiry were:

  • I can share my opinions about text (CCSS SL1.6),
  • I can build on others´ opinions (CCSS SL1.1b),
  • I can ask clarifying questions (CCSS S1.1a),
  • I can compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories (CCSS RL 1.9)
  • I can describe the connection between two individuals, events, ideas, or pieces of information in a text (CCSS RI 1.3)

The notion of using academic discussion to tackle complex text is embedded throughout the Common Core State Standards. However, first grade and kindergarten students are still learning to decode. Was it likely or feasible to have six year-old students leading their own conversations – in a second language – about text they had read?

There were many reasons why I believed this inquiry was highly desirable and manageable. First, students love to talk to each other about all sorts of topics, so why not text? Next, in a dual immersion program, we want students by design to seek each other as models for oral language and vocabulary. Setting up autonomous groups would promote that. Students love games, and demonstrate pride at independence in structured group tasks.

The “How” – Developing and Piloting a Protocol

At the beginning of the inquiry work last September, I sat down with educators from Manzanita Seed, another public school in Oakland. For the past five years, Manzanita Seed and my school, Melrose Leadership Academy, have worked closely together on developing both our dual immersion and Expeditionary Learning curriculum. At this meeting, two educators, Anne Perrone and Dale Rogers, presented the first iteration of a protocol and placemat they had developed for third graders to talk about their opinions. Like many of teachers in OUSD, we had received and read Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford as part of the district’s adoption of a focus on academic discussions highlighted in the Common Core. We were using it as a guiding text for the development of an academic discussion “placemat,” a grid of sentence frames and questions that corresponded to the language functions of student learning goals and would serve as a discussion support for our learners.

The placemat they had originally designed was for older students, and I translated it into Spanish and adapted it for first grade. I put each of the language functions I wanted students to practice into the placemat in order to focus their discussion and monitor how often they were using them. The placemat was the first teaching tool of my inquiry.

Students would use the placemat in small groups of four. Each student received up to five talking pieces, different colored linker cubes signaling how many talking opportunities a student had to “spend down” with each participation turn). The norms were straightforward: students needed to use the linker cubes to read a sentence frame and fill in the blank with their idea related to the text they had read. They did not need to take turns using systems learned at recess like “rock paper scissors” or in circular order because I wanted them to develop an organic conversation style that mimicked how they might talk socially. While this was said at the beginning, it took most of the year for students to stop trying to take turns.

Another norm stated at the outset, with which some students struggled, was the idea that no one student was the leader of the discussion group. Some students naturally began to tell other students what to do and when to speak. Other students deferred to them. Learning how to have a discussion with no “bosses” – and instead using the questions built into the placemat to coach others – was a yearlong process.

While I taught and practiced academic discussion with the whole class, I decided to select four focal students to study in-depth. They were already reading complex text independently so my data collection could focus on the discrete discussion and text analysis skills that I wanted to teach. My reading groups are heterogeneous, and in this one there were two Spanish dominant students and two English dominant. One idea was that this group would become an expert group, which would then model the process for the class. I later discovered that their high reading skills did not seamlessly translate into strong discussion skills – at first.

After reflecting with colleagues, I decided that the indicators of success for the academic discussion would be that: 1) students use all of their talking pieces 2) students vary the types of sentences they use and the types of questions that they ask during the academic discussion 3) their comments and questions reflect the learning goals.

Complex Text in First Grade

At Melrose Leadership Academy it was decided that all of the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry projects would somehow include grappling with complex text. This was done to intentionally align and develop that part of our program. Defining what complex text is was important, and in first grade we decided a text was complex when, among other qualities, it offered an opportunity for differing opinions and introduced academic vocabulary that would help students elaborate nuance in science, math, social studies or language arts.

Summarizing, Superlatives and Structure – Starting Points in Initial Data

With the help of Daniela Mantilla, our Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, I began to collect video data of student- run academic discussions. I observed how students started to internalize and practice the learning goals over the course of the fall. The videos showed students presenting summary of the text, praising the text, and remarking on structural aspects of the text.

In the first diagnostic video, the four students had independently read the Three Little Pigs.

S1: Now, we ask questions.

S2: Wait. How do you play the game?

S3: I don’t know.

S4: I’ll start. No, I won’t start. You play with the cubes. Start!

S2: I want you to know that the wolf blows a lot. We’ll do it like that.

While I had explained the game to them, it was clear from this first video that they still didn’t know how to proceed.   S1 knows they need to ask questions – but they don’t ask questions yet, and later I realized this group wasn’t sure how to do so.

Student 2 uses one of the first frames I introduced on the grid “I want you to know that ___________” and fills in the thought with a summary of the text. That he summarized was an important and informative piece of data. Throughout the year, students in first grade summarized text, instead of analyzing, and this became an important distinction for me to explicitly teach. In the video, students do not ask each other questions or build on each other’s ideas.

In the second video, the focal students have read The Three Billy Goats Gruff. In an effort to elicit student opinion rather than summary, I shifted the sentence frames on the placemat. One included: “I like the part when __________________ because __________________.”   A student “liking” a part of the story or not wasn’t the goal, but rather a scaffold to get them into the practice of justifying an opinion. The other sentence frame I included to make a connection to the story was, “It makes me think of _______.”

S1: When I read this, it made ​​me think it’s funny.

S2: I liked the part when he said the gnome was saying “Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?” What part did you like?

S3: It made me think that we will go for a walk to see a bridge.

At this point, students are more comfortable with the game pieces and process. They use the sentence frames and a student asks a question. Additionally, a student makes a text to life connection to our class expedition on bridges. It was an informative video because it helped me see also that I didn’t want them to simply give passing comment to the text (“it’s funny”) and that I could move them beyond remarking on what they liked. I also recognized the frames made an impact on what the content was – and that I wanted frames which addressed the text analysis functions.

In the third video, students have read Hey, Ant!

S1: Raises hand

S2: I do not know what to say

S3: When I read the part at the end I thought there was going to be an ending, but then I realized that there wasn’t an ending. I think we can make one up, and have an idea. It made me think about when … another student interrupts

By raising her hand, a student relies on a traditional participation gesture. Another student expresses uncertainty – and also meta-cognitive awareness – saying she doesn’t know what to say. The third student reflects on the structure of the book – she was expecting an ending but now discovering that there isn’t one, would like to recommend one. This is creative text engagement, but not analysis.

Occupying Academic Discussion –Changes to Practice

Hand signals

Hand signals as a part of equitable conversations and consensus decision-making has its origins in the Quakers and most recently was popularized during the Occupy Wall Street movement. As a result of the initial data, I began using more explicit expectation of hand signals throughout the day; they allowed for efficient, non-verbal, whole group participation thus disrupting the hierarchy of voice or one speaker.

Alongside visuals and music, gestures have been a crucial part of my language teaching. From the start I had considered how to incorporate hand signals, but it wasn’t until the middle of the year that I was ready to implement them. In my classroom we already had some signals: one for the bathroom and a collection of signals for whole group read aloud. Those included one for “me too” that a student could use to show a connection and a heart sign signaling liking something.

We eventually integrated four hand signals that corresponded directly to the placemat and language functions in the learning goals. Students began to demonstrate their thinking in a non-verbal and kinesthetic way.

As a result of the fall data, I started to incorporate these hand signals throughout the day during Math, Science, Morning Meeting, and Language Arts. They were instant participation and engagement opportunities that reinforced the language frames and functions. Students started to use them in number talk, and to come to consensus through discussion.

A Permanent Placemat

I also introduced a new permanent placemat with streamlined sentence frames that reflected the textual analysis learning targets of compare and contrast, agree and disagree, and asking questions. I included the aligning hand signals on the placemat.

I noticed a huge jump in participation when we started comparing and contrasting. According to research by Robert Marzano, comparing and contrasting is one of the most effective teaching strategies in the classroom. The work we did with characters’ experiences validated that claim, especially after I incorporated a Venn diagram to be a note-catcher after reading a text. Now the students would have evidence they could cite.

Whole Class Practice Opportunities

The new sentence frames were intentionally predictable, simple, and reinforced throughout the day. We began conducting regular “academic discussion” fishbowls based on text, with different students swapping in and out of the middle. The new placemat was used in these fishbowls to reinforce the frames and hand signals. During those fishbowls, students who were not in the middle used hand signals and white boards to chart the discussion.

The role of asking good questions became key in this discovery. Through daily incorporation of questions into morning circle time, students were able to refine and internalize the practice of listening and helping others elaborate their ideas by asking good questions.

What is Good Academic Discussion Anyway?

By April, the students and I had experienced academic discussion in multiple formats and we were ready to co-construct a rubric. While I had set parameters for discussion and informally set out the norms, we didn’t have a concrete tool that we had built together. We started the process of making a rubric whole group, and added to it each time we had a discussion. Indeed, like most everything else in the class at this point, we constructed the rubric using academic discussion, each student participating through hand gestures and using the frames. In this case, I was charting responses on the board and facilitating. One part of that conversation sounded like this:

Teacher: What makes good academic conversations?

Student: I think using the talking pieces makes good academic conversation.

Teacher: I see that some students agree (using hand gestures) with what she said? Why? I see some students said they would like to add something, what?

The final rubric includes discussion habits and discussion content. For simplicity and clarity, I separated operational practices and academic content skills. The language in the rubric is designed to be concrete and student-friendly for first graders – thus, there is a whole category of how to handle the game pieces or cubes. It is also designed for students to complete a self-reflection at the end of each discussion. Therefore, I limited it to three levels for accessibility to students: I achieved the goal, I practiced the goal but I didn’t achieve it, and I didn’t practice it yet.

Considering the Range of Skills Needed for Quality Academic Discussion

In the spring there were two videos that led to the realization I stated at the outset: quality academic discussion in a dual immersion context rests not only upon academic traits like comprehension skills and language but also on social-emotional components like risk-taking and empathy. In the first video, the students meet the criteria of expressing complex ideas in a second language. In the second, a different group of students meets the criteria of demonstrating the empathy and risk-taking required to have a safe and encouraging environment for academic discussion.

In the first video, the group I had been following closely compared and contrasted two songs about kites, embedded in our study of wind. In it, they state opinions about the text. They do not ask each other questions, though one builds upon another by agreeing and offering evidence.

S1: Who is first?

S2: If you have an idea you can just say it

S3: This [placemat] is different from the other one

S4: I think the texts are different because one is about a kite that went upwards in the air and the other is about a comet flying in the air.

S2: I think the texts are different because the kite has the word arrow

S3: I think the texts are similar because the kite and the comet are both flying

S1: I think the texts are similar because they both have the same word but spelled differently

S3: I agree because in on my paper, I see the green

S2: I think they are different because the comet has a friend and the kite has no friend

S1: The two songs are about something flying in the sky.

Here the students are analyzing the text for similarities and differences, using the frames, and internalizing the flow of conversation. Student 3 makes a reference to “the green” – which is where we had text-coded the songs for similarities and differences. This was another protocol we experimented with, color-coding text evidence.

The second video from the spring was filmed with different students. Based on my observations during whole group circle time every morning, I was eager to film a small group of students who weren’t the “focal” students. How had the rubric, fish bowls and hand signals that I had investigated through my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry impacted others in the class?

I knew immediately which students I would choose: they loved to speak in circle in the morning about their experiences, and they were risk-takers with language. They demonstrated a high-level of social-emotional intelligence and willingness to be vulnerable when demonstrating their thinking.

I filmed a small group of students, three of whom were Spanish language learners and below reading benchmark, and one who is an English language learner and on benchmark in reading. We had read and conducted a character analysis of the story, The Little Red Hen, as part of a case study on wheat and a larger expedition on how we cultivate food. Students used a Venn diagram and the placemat to have the conversation.   Here is one exchange:

S1: I think the Red Hen is different [from the other characters] because she is responsible.

S2: Can you say more about why you think she is responsible?

S1: I think is responsible because she makes bread, and works in the kitchen and at home.

In this brief and rich exchange, two students demonstrated mastery of the learning goals by using the frames, asking a strong clarifying question to help elaborate, and responding with more information. While only a slice of the conversation, in this tiny piece of data I saw the whole of what I wanted to see in academic discussion.

The first student, a Spanish language learner, describes the character, and explains how she is different. Instead of stating another opinion, as multiple students did in the focal group, the second student, a Spanish language speaker, stops to ask why the student thinks she is responsible. She is doing three things at once: 1) identifying a key word that requires further justification 2) helping the student clarify his thinking 3) maintaining the topic of the original speaker. In this case, a non-fluent reader is successfully engaged in the academic conversation about complex text. She is demonstrating the practice of empathy, social-awareness and self-regulation, as she focuses her attention away from her own ideas and onto the speaker’s.

Learning Leaders: Teacher AND Students

Through my year-long Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry process I came to some key discoveries about my own teaching practice:

  • Collecting and analyzing video data drives changes that improve the effectiveness of my practice.
  • Expanding the practices that are goals in small groups to the entire day and whole group fishbowls, increases student familiarity with the procedures.
  • Willingness to revise hands on materials such as placemats and sentence frames improves student access and openness.

All of the above moved the class toward independent academic discussions that resulted in the slow release of the teacher as the sole learning leader.


Marijke Conklin has worked as a teacher in Oakland for 9 years.  She has a bachelors degree in Latin American Studies from Barnard College and a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.  In addition to academic discussion, her inquiry interests have included social-emotional learning, language acquisition with multiple modalities and race in the classroom.