A teacher directs the attention of her first-grade students to a figure of a plant on the board in front of the classroom. She points to its various parts, asking students to name them out loud.
“Leaf,” one student says.
“Root,” says another.
“That one looks like an octopus!” exclaims a third.
All at once, the students begin shouting out responses and commentary. The teacher quickly hushes them, refocusing their attention on the task at hand.
This kind of scenario occurs in classrooms across the country every day.
“There’s a mindset that suggests that silence and compliance are the mark of a good teacher,” Sam Oertwig says. This “culture of silence” comes from both the pressure of administrators, who consistently direct educators to stay on schedule with the curriculum, and teachers who fear they won’t be able to regain students’ attention if they start letting them talk.
But silent classrooms are cause for concern, according to Oertwig.
“Too often children of color and from less-advantaged homes are relegated to memorizing isolated facts and doing what they are told,” Oertwig explains. “They don’t learn how to tell their stories or articulate their experiences. They don’t learn how to use language as a tool to craft an argument or explain their thinking. New vocabulary doesn’t feel relevant to them, and working together with a friend to solve a challenging problem isn’t part of their experience.”
Oertwig is a research scientist for FirstSchool, a UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) initiative focused on partnering with schools to improve the educational experiences of African-American, Latino, and low-income children in pre-K through third grade.
The project began with Sharon Ritchie, principal investigator and senior research scientist at FPG, who has spent countless hours inside elementary schools as part of her research. During these visits, she found that students and teachers spend a mere 28 minutes a day having what’s considered meaningful conversation — even though research shows that oral language and vocabulary development are strong predictors of third-grade outcomes.
“Children listen to teachers and, when they have a chance to talk at all, it’s often in very short utterances,” Ritchie points out. “We’ve seen this sort of scenario countless times. It’s especially common in schools that principally serve students of color and those who come from less-advantaged homes.”
An online toolkit
Most recently, Ritchie and her team developed an online course for teachers and administrators designed to improve student communication, classroom community, and the culture of collaborative inquiry in schools.
Funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the course provides more in-class opportunities for oral language development. All of the content, activities, and quizzes draw on research and lessons gleaned by the FirstSchool team, who spent thousands of hours in pre-kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.
FirstSchool piloted the course in North Carolina with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. A central office administrator, two principals, and several teachers in charge of nearly 2,900 students across each pre-kindergarten to third-grade level participated.
After learning of the pilot’s success, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) knew they wanted to be a part of this innovative program.
“MDE heard about FirstSchool and invited us to be part of their more than three-year endeavor to provide support for PreK through third-grade leadership teams across the entire state,” Ritchie explains.
MDE helped the FirstSchool team revise the course, add supports, and hire school personnel to serve as regional liaisons, supporting course participants in person and online. More than 226 educators overseeing nearly 8,700 students marked notable differences among their students as more conversation is brought into the classroom
More talking, more learning
Throughout the course, teachers worked on pre-planning higher-order thinking questions, having sustained conversations with children, asking children to explain their reasoning, and building classroom community through morning and afternoon meetings, among other strategies.
“Research supports prioritizing communication in these ways,” explains Adam Holland, a researcher who evaluated the course’s impact. “These kinds of practices can change the classroom atmosphere dramatically.”
In response, students began communicating more and engaging in storytelling. One teacher reported that she especially valued one of the course’s core principles — “the one doing the talking is the one learning.”
Dawn Pope, a speech language pathologist in Minnesota’s Austin Public Schools district, feels that insights from the online tool help guide her instruction. “It really focused me in making sure that while students were in my room, they were able to practice the oral language targets that I was trying to teach them,” she says.
The course also increased awareness of colleagues’ teaching techniques, according to participating educators. “When I see other teachers’ work or hear what they are doing in their classrooms, I am now noticing the ways they incorporate communication to deepen learning,” says one teacher. “And I am inspired to try these or similar ideas in my own classroom.”
An advocate for students
Teachers do a lot for their students, even when they have few resources. So when they have the right tools and support, they can do even more. “They become articulate about the research behind their practices, find ways to meet school and district expectations, and provide rich experiences for their students,” says Ritchie, now a 12-year veteran of the program. “And they develop their own skill and knowledge base in order to be more effective in their roles.”
But bringing this type of change to schools can be challenging. “Even when teachers are ready to learn new ways of teaching, resources in education are strained,” Ritchie says. “Education agencies often do not have the funds or the time to put the right opportunities in front of the right educators.”
This makes the online course more important than ever.
“We’ve extended our reach far beyond what we would have been able to do with in-person professional development,” Holland explains. “These children will complete third grade with improved vocabulary skills and with more opportunities to collaborate with their peers around learning. They’ll be better readers and better learners, allowing them to take advantage of more opportunities in school and later in life.”