Helping Students Become Thoughtful Conversationalists

Scott Tyink

by Scott Tyink

For Middle Level

One day in my classroom halfway through the year, a student asked, “Do we have to share today?” This question absolutely floored me, because from my observations, what middle school students seek most is to know one another. They pass notes, text each other, chat by their lockers, side-talk during class, and chat at virtually any chance in a school day.

As I reflected and observed over the next few weeks, I realized the students were disengaging because our sharing was boring. I was bored, too: I rushed to finish sharing, given our short time frame, and often used whip sharing because it was quick. Sharing was merely a hurdle to pass before the real fun began with the game.

I decided to reevaluate and experiment with a few practices that might help everyone reengage in sharing.

I tried two strategies: wait time and think-alouds.

Wait time
I knew the benefits of wait time, but I did not practice it during sharing, because I felt we needed to hurry. To indicate that silence was valuable (and to remind me), we placed an empty chair in the circle. After somebody shared, we practiced allowing five seconds wait time before raising hands. I enforced it diligently, and I noticed that over time, more and more students were asking questions. But many of the questions were shallow and disengaging.

I decided I needed to model asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions. Day after day I modeled, but I saw minimal progress. They were still asking one-word, simple and repetitive questions. I decided I needed stronger scaffolding, and I recalled a strategy I used in reading: the think-aloud, to make my thinking more transparent.

One January morning, Shawn shared about his weekend hockey game. It was clear by the rote questions they asked that the class had no interest in once again hearing about his weekend game. It was the usual:

“What was the score?”

“Did you score a goal?”

“Where did you play?”

Then silence. No more questions, only a desire to have it done. This was the time to see if we could reengage in Shawn’s share.

I shared my thoughts out loud: “I wonder where Shawn gets his love for hockey. What question could we ask to find that out?”

We waited five seconds, then Amy raised her hand. “Shawn, it is clear you love hockey. Where did you get your love for the game?”

Shawn talked about how his dad, who was no longer living with him, was a player and used to play with and coach him. Playing helped him keep the happy memories alive. He also shared how his favorite stick was given to him by his dad and he had written inspirational words on it.

Everyone was silently, intensely attentive as he began to tear up—big, tough Shawn on the edge of tears. I think it was at this moment we all realized how the right question helped us get to know someone in a new way. From that moment on, many of our sharing questions began with what we named ‘wonderings’. We would share what we wondered, then as a class try to formulate engaging questions based on what we wondered. We did make progress on question asking, and from that point forward I spent much more time on the power of good questions rather than on share topics and formats.

Spending time teaching and learning how to ask good questions reengaged students in sharing and indulging their curious nature. After all, good readers, scientists, and mathematicians begin their quest for knowledge by wondering and asking questions.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Albert Einstein

Scott Tyink has helped to design and facilitate Developmental Designs workshops, consulted in middle schools, and coached teachers for more than 10 years. For 14 years, he taught adolescents in grades 5 through 8. He co-organized, directed, and taught in La Crosse, Wisconsin's first multiage middle-level charter school, where he developed curriculum that integrated arts and technology to inspire and challenge students.

Posted April 2014

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1 Mary Budd Rowe has done extensive research on wait time and found it significantly increases length of response and number of responses. Require a minimum three seconds, but a five-second wait is better, before students are allowed to ask a question. Rowe’s research indicated the average teacher allows one second wait time. Rowe, Mary Budd. Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up. American Educator 11 (Spring 1987): 38-43, 47.