Conversation Management

For Middle Level

Creating the Climate

Middle school educators can teach their students how to have great group conversations that build both academic and social skills. First of all, we have to establish a climate that encourages participation.

Hand-raising: The first conversation format
Make hand-raising your class's default way of responding to questions. Establish this conversation-management tool so students feel a sense of order, safety, and respect. Later, you can bring variety and challenge to student participation structures.

Before: Model and practice the protocols ahead of time
To establish a rule that students must raise hands and be called upon to speak, teachers need to spend time modeling how to raise your hand and wait to be called upon to speak, and give students guided practice in doing it. Stick with this format until students can go through at least ten minutes of discussion without blurting or side-talking. Model and practice all the other aspects of respectful group conversations, too-especially how to listen. You can record expectations or steps of the protocol on a chart for easy future reference.

Before: State clear purposes
Before beginning to train students in the art of respectful conversation, you can give the whole process a jump-start by explaining why we're embarking on an anti-blurting campaign. Explain clearly why blurting is not OK. You might use a metaphor to help students understand the purpose of the protocols. Because many blurters haven't learned how to be team players, try a team metaphor to explain how teams work well together.

We're a team, and I'm the coach. I'm going to teach you how I want to run our offense. Occasionally, when a player is doing well, I'm going to call out encouragement to that player. When a player messes up, I'm going to give advice to that player to help him or her not repeat the mistake. If the player makes another mistake, I'm not just going to sit there and do nothing --I'm going to take action. I might pull that player out of the game for a minute or two and have him or her sit on the bench. While the player is on the bench, I expect him or her to recuperate physically and mentally by planning what to do differently when I send him or her back into the game. And when I do that, I expect the player to get back to what we've been working on: running an effective offense.

This is how we'll work together during whole-group discussions: I'll teach you how we're going to run our conversations. I'll give encouragement when things are going well and make suggestions for fixing your mistakes. You'll be expected to follow my suggestions. If you don't, I may remove you from the conversation for a minute or two and have you recuperate and plan for getting back on track. Then you'll be right back in the conversation, and I'll expect you to get back to doing the right thing.

During: Ways to support expectations
During group discussions, take the following steps to keep things running smoothly and according to the expectations that have been established:

  • Notice what's going on at all times, whether students are following the expectations.
  • Reinforce expectations by occasionally acknowledging aloud when the group is successfully following expectations, or when an individual is doing well.
  • Remind students of the expectations several times in order to keep the protocols present.
  • Redirect all behavior that deviates from the protocols.
  • Use a signal for silence to stop the group the moment you feel things may be slipping away, and get the group back on track.
  • Talk less and invite students to talk more.
  • Reflect at the end of the discussion with a question or two about how well the group discussion process went.

Ongoing: Broader behavior-management practices
The Developmental Designs approach uses a number of practices in concert to address the problem of blurting, including creating group rules; modeling and practicing clear behavior expectations for living those rules in daily routines; reinforcing teacher language; and redirecting and problem-solving when the rules are broken.

Next step: Add variety and challenge
When discussions are going well with everyone raising hands to speak, try other structured formats to manage group conversations, adding them one at a time.

Each time, model the new structure first, then have students practice it. The first few times you use a new structure during a whole-group activity, reinforce expectations by letting students know when they're doing well, and redirect them when they forget to follow the structure.

Formats for Participation

Here are some commonly used ways of managing conversations during whole-group time.

Partner up
Students form pairs. Teacher poses a question or topic, and each pair holds a brief conversation on the topic. Teacher says ahead of time how long students will have for discussion; discussions should be brief at first (say, 1 minute). After the discussion time, teacher may call on volunteers to share with the large group about what was discussed in their pair.

Model & Practice: How to greet each other; how to speak to an audience of one; how to listen; how to quickly switch back to the large group when time is up

Pulling sticks
Teacher prepares a set of popsicle sticks in advance; each has a student's name written on it. Teacher asks the whole group to consider a question or topic, then pulls a stick randomly from the pile, and the student whose name is on the stick responds to the question or topic. Teacher may repeat this process before moving to the next question or topic.

Model & Practice: Listening; responding when your name is called; dealing appropriately with the random, element of this technique; overcoming shyness when one's name is called and one would rather remain silent; self-control when one wishes to speak but isn't called upon

Partner up with pulling sticks
Teacher uses a set of sticks as described above. Students form pairs to answer a question or to comment on a topic posed by the teacher. This way, everyone participates in the discussion. Teacher pulls a stick from the pile, and that person shares with the whole group what s/he discussed with the partner. Teacher may pull another stick or two to elicit additional responses. Only those whose names are pulled share with the whole group.

Model & Practice: Same as pulling sticks

Talking piece
Students raise their hands and wait to speak until they are in possession of the talking piece, which could be a stick, a ball, a beanbag, etc. The student holding the talking piece is the only one allowed to speak. After adding to the discussion, the student passes the talking piece back to the teacher, or hands it to the next speaker, or places it in a neutral spot, where the next speaker will pick it up. The talking piece may also be passed from person to person around the circle.

Model & Practice: How to silently request the piece; how the piece is to move from person to person; how to care for the piece; how to project one's voice appropriately

Whip share
This sharing format features quick, brief participation from everyone. Students share a brief response with the large group, one at a time (the right to speak "whips" around the room). Typically, a whip share is done in a circle or horseshoe arrangement, so the person who is to go next can best see that her turn is coming and so everyone can see and hear the speaker well. You might want to allow "pass" as an option.

Model & Practice: How to be brief; how to be ready; how to jump in when it's your turn; how to project one's voice appropriately

Sanctioned blurting! Students voluntarily "pop" out of their seats and give an answer or comment. When finished, the speaker sits down, which is the signal for the next person who wishes to pop.

Model & Practice: How to pop; how to concede to another when two pop at the same time; how to project voice appropriately

Cold call
Teacher asks a question or introduces a topic for discussion and then calls on students at random. Only those called upon may offer a response. No hand raising or other aid is used.

Model & Practice: How to be alert and ready to respond at any time; how to ask someone for help with an answer

Nonverbal participation tools
There are many ways to get students actively involved in a whole-group activity without their actually speaking.

Example: Post a sign in each corner of the room, one labeled "strongly agree," one "agree," one "disagree," and the last "strongly disagree." After students read or hear a statement, they move to corners to convey their responses. After they move, teacher may ask for volunteers from each corner to explain why they moved where they did.

Example: Students write answers to questions or prompts on slips of paper and cluster them for public viewing.

Example: Students use a nonverbal signal such as thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down to show their response to a statement made by the leader.

Related Activity Type: 
Engaged Learning Strategies