HTH GSE Teacher Leadership

Equity, Diversity and Design Principles

Final Product Reflection

Kristen Bechtel

Have you ever been in a classroom and realize that it is the same 3 to 6 students raising their hands to participate?  As an observer, a teacher, or a fellow student, you wonder about the other unheard voices. What are they thinking?  Why don’t they share?  What is their experience?  What are their ideas?

This is a condition that affects most classrooms, and it is easy to ignore, but ignoring it doesn’t foster an equitable, safe learning environment.  There are countless strategies a teacher can use in writing curriculum and lesson plans that will allow student voice to be heard.  Whether it is pulling a name from a jar that contains all the students’ names that are on the roster or something on a grander scale, such as the Chalk Talk.

The Chalk Talk is a silent activity in which all students are armed with a white board marker and instructed to respond to questions or quotes on the board.  In addition, once students have commented on the questions or quotes, they may comment on other students’ comments.

In my observations of students over the past seven weeks of school, I noticed that they felt secure talking with me one on one and working in small groups.  While most of the time I assign groups based on random criteria (card number, card suite, paper color), I have also allowed students to choose partners to work with on projects.  I believe that the security, or safety issue in my classroom is present, but minimal.  It is an issue that stems from the insecurity of the age group and the ever-changing acceptance of the peer group.  So, while knowing this safety issue is there in my class, my primary goal implementing the Chalk Talk strategy was to promote a value of all voices and ideas.

My students are writing a narrative for the CATE 2010 Creative Writing Contest.  The prompt is based on The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and calls upon students to write about a time they took the road less traveled.  Because most of students were not familiar with Frost’s piece, I decided to spend a few days on that before delving into the writing prompt.  Before reading the poem, students engaged in a quick write addressing a time they made a difficult choice and explaining the outcome of that choice.  They then formed a Round Robin with students of their choice (because this was personal writing) and shared out.  Round Robin is a group sharing strategy.  In Round Robin each member shares their ideas.  No one in the group may speak while a member is sharing.  After all have shared, the group may comment on the ideas of individuals.

Because The Road Not Taken is a metaphorical piece, I thought that a Chalk Talk with quotes about choices would be an effective scaffold in building schema before we read the poem as a class.  In previous years, when I had taught this poem, I created stepping stones with paper leading into my classroom and then diverging into various paths within the classroom.  Each stone had a quote about choices.  This year, I used these quotes for the Chalk Talk.  They were no longer mute stones that students stepped on in their quest to get to their seat, rather they were host to a silent conversation among 33 students.

What I noticed first is that all my students were busy responding to quotes, not just the 3 to 6 that usually participated.  As an added bonus, students were engaged, they “liked” this activity. I did see a lot of “I agree” or “That is so true” so I realized that in the future I would need to ask them to delve deeper than the initial stem and explain why they agreed or disagreed.  After about 8 minutes or so of responding to the quotes, I asked students to step back and then read the comments their peers had written and, if moved, comment on those.

Although probably not for my students, but definitely for me, the most important part of the whole process was debriefing and reflecting on the process.  I asked the following questions:

◊        What did you think of the Chalk Talk?

◊    Why do you think I required you to be silent during the Chalk Talk?

◊    What was the purpose of the Chalk Talk?

◊        How did the quotes relate to the quick write you did yesterday?

◊        Is there anything that should be done differently?

Unlike the usual 3 to 6 students raising their hands, there were 10 to 12 students who volunteered their ideas.        Below are some of their responses:

◊        “The chalk talk allowed us to share our opinion without other people influencing us.”

◊        “This activity let us share our ideas more efficiently.”

◊        “It is anonymous so no one can put your idea down.”

◊        “No one’s opinion is left out.”

◊        “I felt liberated with the white board marker in my hand.  I could respond to what I chose, and no one knew what comments I made.”

◊        “I liked the idea that I could disagree with other’s comments and they didn’t know it was me.”

◊        “I enjoyed commenting on other’s statements and trying to get them to go deeper than just, ‘I agree…’ “

◊        “Think of how much we said in such a short amount of time, without saying it.”

◊        “I liked how it was quiet, it helped us hear the ideas in our head and then jot them down.”

◊        “I think the silence enforced the anonymity.”

I was so amazed by the Chalk Talk that during the five-minute passing period I ran over to a history colleague’s room and asked her to come and see what had happened.  She came over and began reading the board while my students reflected in writing on the experience.   We agreed what a powerful strategy this would be in her U.S. history class with all of the big issues in that content area.

After my students left I read their written reflections.  While my primary goal in using the Chalk Talk as a strategy and scaffold was to provide all students with an opportunity to share their ideas, what I also learned was that the protocol of the Chalk Talk ensured and helped to create a safe environment.

I shared the experience with the principal who had come to my room with a board member, Kathleen Nakamura, to observe a lesson.  Although I had shared Chalk Talk with Carmen, the history teacher, and the principal, I felt the need to share with others.  During my passing period, I am often struck by the amount of classrooms that are full of quiet, motionless students.  Perhaps Chalk Talk would be a tool teachers would consider using.  A few days later I asked my principal, Listy Gillingham, if I could present the strategy at the next staff meeting.  She thought it was a great idea and shared that in her observations of two other teachers that week she had recommended the Chalk Talk based on the curriculum that was being covered in their classes.

I decided that the best way to present the Chalk Talk was via Power Point.  I only had 8 minutes and so I would need to be concise and really focus on the purpose.  I wanted to leave the teachers with the idea that this strategy provided equity in participation and expression of ideas in a non-threatening environment.  In addition to that, the Chalk Talk incorporates movement.   I believe that the staff benefited from my quick shot of staff development.  Several teachers commented that they were going try it.  Later that day I sent the following email to the staff, “Thanks for letting me take some of your brain space this morning.  I wanted to make it clear that I was not presenting the Chalk Talk to you as a staff because I had to, but because I wanted to.  I am always hungry for more ideas.  As teachers, we are so isolated and we rarely have the time to read professionally or plan with others and risk new ideas, tools, ventures.  I would love it, like Listy stated this morning, if we could share strategies and build a professional environment where we could walk away from meetings with another tool in our bag.

I believe, that if used appropriately, the chalk talk has enormous value.  If you just throw pens to your students and tell them to respond to something on the board then NO--it doesn't.  I have attached a copy of the directions if you want to modify them for your class and if you want a copy of the power point in notes form let me know.” I received this reply from a sixth grade colleague, “I thought it was awesome!!!!  I am going to try and input it into the lesson tomorrow for The Circuit...I am gathering quotes that will relate to the theme of the story and get them thinking before we begin...what do you think?  Any suggestions???”

I hope that my presentation and the power point caused teachers to reflect on their practice in regards to equity and safe learning environments.  I also hope that my actions and the principal’s support will initiate a willingness of other staff members to share practices or ideas from their own toolkits.

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