Challenging Discussion Protocols

Kitchen Table Talk increases student self-management

For Middle Level

Last year, as a Developmental Designs coach, I observed St. Louis Park (MN) Junior High seventh grade social studies teacher Rebecca Hinkle as she introduced and began to use the participation protocol Kitchen Table Talk in her classroom. She implemented it for a discussion of the relationship between the Dakota tribe of Native Americans and the U.S. government. Rebecca had used other techniques for managing whole-group conversations, including hand-raising and partner shares; this was her first time using Kitchen Table Talk.

Freedom and responsibility
Kitchen Table Talk allows students freedom and discretion in conversation, and it requires commensurate self-management. The teacher doesn't call on students to speak; she or he prompts the group with a question or topic, and the students take it from there.

Rebecca used the signal for silence, greeted her students, and asked them a question: "What are some characteristics of a conversation at the kitchen table? Raise your hand, and wait until I call on you to respond." Students mentioned asking questions; talking about an event that's going to happen; commenting on the food; and listening to people share.

A personal story
Rebecca then told a personal story, about meeting her fiancé's family for the first time and sharing a meal with them. She described their way of talking at the table. She had trouble keeping up, because multiple people were speaking at once across the table, spontaneously introducing new topics and raising their voices to various levels.

Rebecca drove home thinking they were rude not respecting what each other had to say. Later, she realized that the family wasn't behaving rudely; they were talking informally, enthusiastically, and everyone wanted to be heard. She said that the class' Kitchen Table Talk would require extra care to make sure everyone was heard.

With her story, Rebecca had primed the students. She engaged them right away, by telling her own story about what it was like to be part of a "kitchen table" discussion. Rebecca explained what their classroom's Kitchen Table Talk would look like and used the following chart to teach her expectations:

Kitchen Table Talk

  • spontaneous conversation and blurting are OK
  • teacher asks question(s) and students respond in a free-flowing manner
  • everyone avoids talking over each other
  • speakers join the conversation gracefully and respectfully

They modeled and practiced Kitchen Table Talk, using a sample question. Then Rebecca declared the group ready to use it in a ten-minute conversation. She showed a second chart that showed the content-based topic for their discussion. Rebecca had laid the foundation for a successful whole-group conversation. The structure required lots of self-control and awareness of others in the group. She modeled Kitchen Table Talk, went over written expectations, asked them to practice, and gave them a time limit ahead of time. A time limit helps students maintain their engagement even when the experience is challenging. Without it, they may feel "This is hopeless. I can't sit here and keep myself in check for the rest of this class!" But almost everyone can say, "I can hang in there for ten minutes."

A good beginning
At first, out of habit, students raised their hands, and Rebecca reminded them that Kitchen Table Talk did not include hand-raising. Soon, students began chiming in, being careful not to talk over each other. Several points were made and opinions articulated, and several respectful disagreements were expressed. At one point, a student who had been listening carefully but had not spoken said, "I think we need to hear more voices." I wondered if she would have spoken up in the raise-your-hand-and-I'll-call-on-you format.

There were a couple of times when students started speaking at the same time. This was fixed without teacher intervention: one or both stopped the minute they realized they weren't "merging gracefully" and deferred with a gesture to the other to proceed. Rebecca stayed out of the conversation for the most part. A couple of times, to keep things moving, she restated the question or asked a student to say more.

High engagement
Although not everyone spoke during the discussion, most students seemed engaged, listening, nodding in agreement or disagreement and looking thoughtful. Those who participated seemed comfortable with the kitchen table format, and Rebecca plans to find ways to increase the number of students whose voices are heard in the future. Perhaps with more practice, students will feel more comfortable talking in a way that allows for "blurting."

Rebecca announced that the ten minutes had passed, and she reverted to requiring hand-raising. She asked, "How many would like to use this way of discussing again?" Almost all of the students' hands shot up. She then asked, "What did you like about the discussion?" Responses included:

"We were allowed to say our ideas."
"We didn't have to raise hands."
"We weren't forced to wait until called upon."
"We were trusted."
"There was just enough time to get a point in."

Final thoughts
It was wonderful to see students talking in a free-flowing way that was both respectful and academically-focused. Their reflections showed their earnest participation and thoughtfulness.

Kandace Logan is an Instructional Leader for the Minneapolis Public Schools.