One of the sections that some readers might find especially “new” in the 2.0 version of TLaC is the chapter on building Ratio through discussion. (Aside: there are three chapters on Ratio in the new book: one on questioning, one on writing and one on discussion… not bad for a concept that was merely one technique in the first version. You’ve come a long way, Ratio).
One of the techniques in the Ratio via Discussion chapter is “Turn and Talk.” I note in the chapter that this technique is hardly unique to high performing teachers. It’s extremely common across classrooms. What makes it a TLaC technique, then, is how the best teachers use it, and how they use it differently form others. Because let’s be honest, Turn and Talk can be great when it’s rigorous and efficient , when it’s used discretion and intentionality and when students feel a keen and positive sense of accountability. And it can be a disaster- a waste of time parading as rigorous discussion–when done poorly.
So the geek factor is fairly high on the Turn and Talk section. Right down to about 750 words on what a good cue to start looks like. But actually, I think they’ll be really useful. And so, with thanks to all the teachers who I watched do great Turn and Talks, and particularly to the three I mention here, Rue Ratray, Eric Snider and Maggie Johnson, here’s a draft of the revised TLaC section of Turn and Talk in cues.
If you asked a group of people (students but often adults, too) to Turn and Talk, their first thought might be to look around the room and see if other people were doing it. They might feel something between caution and skepticism. It would be embarrassing to earnestly turn to a neighbor and opine about how the setting shapes the early action of the novel only to have your partner roll her eyes at you or say nothing back as you realize that only “those” kids are eager to turn and talk. And even if their first thought was more positive, they might spend time determining who they’d talk to or who among a pair would talk first. And just to make sure they weren’t the only one talking they might wait it out a few seconds until it was clear others had started first, just to be sure.
If students look around and don’t see others participating they won’t perceive the activity to be sincere and rigorous but rather obligatory. There’s a bit of game theory afoot, a classroom permutation of the prisoner’s dilemma: Each student needs reassurance that everyone else is going to participate fully or else they won’t participate fully, and if everyone takes a ‘wait and see’ approach you lose. Someone has to jump in first. So it’s important to find a way to cause participants start right away and pretty much in unison. That’s your in-cue’s job.
I watched Rue Ratray of Edward Brooke Charter Schools do this in one of his lessons recently. Students were reading an interview with Lois Lowry about her famous youth novel, The Giver and came upon a sentence that required close reading. “I agree with Nijah,” he said. “We do need to break down the phrase ’Rejecting the authority and wisdom of the governing body.’ What does that mean?” he asked the class, head tilted slightly in sincere consternation, and pausing for a few seconds to let the question (and the challenge of the sentence that just might have stumped the teacher) sink in. Then: “Turn and talk to your partner. Go!”
As he said this the room snapped to life, all of Rue’s students engaging in energetic conversation exactly on cue. The phrase Rue used, “Turn and talk to your partner. Go!” was central to this success. He said it quickly, almost as if it was a single word, and it was familiar to Rue’s students. He’d been using it steadily for weeks, if not every time he dispatched them to Turn and Talk then at least with enough frequency that it had become a predictable stimulus to students-familiar and always resulting in all parties quickly and energetically engaging in a discussion. So a good prompt is, like Rue’s, familiar, consistent, fast and often including a strategic bit of line-brightening such as the word “Go!” to cause students to snap to energetic discussion all at once. It doesn’t hurt when the teacher shows strong interest in the discussion topic, as Rue did, or causes students to show their interest. I recently saw Maggie Johnson of Troy Prep do this. Coming to the end of a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, she asked her students for an interpretation of Atticus’ actions, enthusiasm in her voice and a quizzical look on her face. Eight or ten hands went up. She paused. “Ooh, a lot of you know,” she said, “But Turn and Talk to your partner first. Go!” Having publicly expressed their knowledge of and desire to talk about Maggie’s question and primed by her clever use of suspense, the students snapped into discussion.
Though Maggie and Rue approach the in-cue with a similar prompt, not every teacher does it that way. I watched Eric Snider of Achievement First Bushwick Middle School uses a fascinating version of the in-cue. The class was reading Ray Bradbury’s 1950’s-era work of science fiction The Martian Chronicles. During a tense scene where a family arrives to live on Mars, Eric looked at his students. “What is David, the son, feeling worried about?” he asked, pausing briefly, and then adding, “Long hair to short hair.” That phrase was their prompt to turn and talk. It meant that the member of each pair with longer hair would start the conversation first. Other times when Eric used it he would say, “Short hair to long hair.” But interestingly he never said “Turn and Talk.” That part was implicit. Though his in cue seems quite different from Maggie’s and Rue’s it in fact uses the same principles: fast, consistent, concise, offered with a bit of energy. And his result was the same: the classroom sprung to life.