The Chatty Class by Donalyn Miller

I stayed home sick today. This is a big deal. I don’t like to miss school. I spend two hours writing sub plans that won’t be followed and worry all day about my students. Forget the fever. Forget the chills. Forget the body aches. Unless I am contagious or coughing up a lung, I might as well go.

The only reason I didn’t go to school today is because I lost my voice.  Doubtful that I could go five minutes without talking with my students—much less eight hours—I decided to stay home and spare my raw throat the agony. My students and I spend our days talking—conferring, discussing Auggie’s disastrous Halloween while reading Wonder, sharing our writing, or debating which book should win this year’s Bluebonnet Award (our prediction: Zita the Spacegirl). We talk constantly.

After visiting our classroom, my principal left a note on my desk praising my students’ “love for language, confidence, and sense of empowerment.” I laughed and wondered if this was principal code for “so much talking it sounds like a beehive in here.” The only time my students and I aren’t talking is when we read and write. Destiny, one of my chattiest students, points out, “We are still talking, Mrs. Miller, we are just talking in our heads.”

A few years into my teaching career, I realized that there was no way I always drew the “party class” during scheduling. It’s me. My students figure out quickly that I don’t mind talking as long as we remain productive. My students seem as starved for conversation as they do for books. They need to talk—to express themselves and process what they are learning.

Spending as little as ten minutes a day engaged in conversations about what they read and write positively affects students’ reading achievement, comprehension, and writing. As James Britton famously said, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” Setting aside time for students to talk is one of the most effective learning strategies and one of the least utilized. Teachers see too much talking as a problem and invest a lot of time into developing classroom routines and consequences that shut down talking.

Recognizing my students’ need to talk and the value of talk in the classroom, my instruction has changed over the years to include more opportunities for talking, not less. Here are some easy-to-implement methods for increasing productive talk in the classroom:

Every time you ask the class as question, invite students to discuss their thoughts with each other. Classroom questioning historically follows an initiate-respond-evaluate cycle in which the teacher initiates a question, one student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response. Most of the other students sit disengaged and the teacher can’t evaluate what more than one student knows. Posing a question to my class, I circulate and listen to groups’ discussion, assessing what my students know and addressing misconceptions as needed. Gathering my class back together, I call on groups randomly to share their conversations. I don’t just call on hand raisers. It could be anyone.

After students read, invite them to share what they discover or wonder about their books. Through these conversations, students process what they have learned from their reading and increase their understanding of what they read. Sharing their reading, students provide their peers with reading recommendations that lead to more reading, too. The primary way readers respond to books is through reader-to-reader endorsement. The more students talk about their reading, the better their writing about reading becomes, too.

When writing stalls, talk more. Setting aside time for students to write every day, I notice that some students have difficulty beginning or sustaining writing. When I notice students’ enthusiasm for writing flagging, we spend more time discussing our life experiences as potential writing topics and sharing snippets of our writing. Presenting new writing topics, I often ask students to discuss the topic first, and then write.

If side talking and chatter interrupt classroom instruction, provide students with a minute or two to talk. Right before or after the weekend, holiday breaks, assemblies, snowstorms, library visits or any other disruption from our normal routine, I notice that my students chat more. When I offer students a few minutes to chat about these events first, I can usually lead them toward making a connection to something we have read or spark ideas for writing.

Include students in conversations about classroom organization and routines. When my students begged me for a new seating chart, complaining that they didn’t like our desk arrangements, I asked students to design our next seating plan. Working during our morning meeting time, my homeroom developed several seating designs and pitched them to the rest of the class. After voting on the most workable plan, we moved the desks and chairs. Every morning, my students straighten desks that shifted and set out the chairs. They own that seating plan and work to maintain it.

I know that many of these ideas aren’t new, but I need the reminder that talking isn’t a bad thing if it leads to students’ learning, sense of belonging, and investment in our community. Inside my classroom, I always have a voice. I want my students to feel that way, too.

My voice will come back in a few days. I predict that my sub will leave me a nice note about how great my class was, except for the talking. My students will have a lot to tell me about what I missed. I can’t wait to hear every word.

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.