Want to help students take charge of their learning by building a robust talk environment in the classroom? Read on!

Recently, my school was awarded a Nellie Mae Grant, which resulted in some wonderful professional development opportunities for our teachers. I took part in Jon Saphier’s Making Student Thinking Visible (MSTV) training, and I am amazed at the positive impact this course has had on my class. MSTV was designed to help ignite student discourse and to cultivate student-led learning. Its goal is to guide students to articulate their thinking, and it helped me build a vigorous talk environment in my classroom that enabled my students to become confident enough to manage their own discussions.

The operating principles of MSTV require teachers to lay the foundation by making certain their classes are safe places for students to take risks. Teachers should call on all students, pause and use wait time, avoid judgment, and validate confusion. As students begin to discuss and to answer questions, teachers can ask them to explain and elaborate, restate, revoice or paraphrase, agree or disagree, add-on, compare thinking or return to previous thinking. When reading a book, for example, I present students with questions designed to dig deep into the text, to examine point of view, character, setting, and plot, and to uncover symbolism and recognize irony. The students work in pairs or small groups to answer questions, while I, as teacher, merely facilitate – the students must work their way through each question themselves. It’s been quite enlightening to see this work in my classroom!

It took some time to get used to the MSTV model. I had to refrain from being the “sage on the stage,” who provides my students with the answers to difficult questions. I had to be willing to see my students squirm a little – finding the answers to the questions took some time, some trial and error, and some deep digging.

Let me give you an example.  When my students were reading The Bean Trees, I asked them “Explain the significance of the chapter title ‘New Year’s Pig,’ and interpret how the title connects to the theme of the novel.” In this chapter, a market owner, Lee Sing, tells a pregnant Lou Ann that she is going to have a girl and that will be like “feeding the neighbor’s New Year pig. All that work. In the end, it goes to some other family.”

There was so much I wanted my students to glean from that title. First I wanted them to be able to interpret the meaning behind comparing a female baby to a New Year’s Pig, and I hoped that they would see how Lee Sing’s reference relegates Lou Ann’s female baby to a possession, which would then become the property of another family when she married. I hoped that my students would see how the remark not only offended Lou Ann, but also made her feel guilty because she moved away from her own family to be close to her husband’s family in Arizona. Most importantly, I wanted my students to recognize how this statement reinforced a reoccurring theme in the novel – the devaluing of women.

My students were placed in groups of 3, and when they came to this question, many of them were initially stumped. Few took out their books to find the reference in the text, which was what I had hoped they would do. “Help us, Ms. Barile!” they pleaded. In some cases, I had to say “Maybe you should take out your book and find where that term is used?” Once students found the section in the book, most easily understood what “New Year’s Pig” meant in its context, but it took a bit longer to understand the term’s meaning in relation to the entire novel. I watched as a vigorous debate began about the interpretive meaning of the term “New Year’s Pig,” and then I beamed as the arguments gradually brought the students to an understanding of the novel’s overall theme. It was pretty fascinating stuff.

Over the next month, I watched my students’ ability to examine and interpret a text improve significantly – and without my help. It took an enormous amount of restraint for me, as a teacher, not to chime in and help. The “New Year’s Pig” interpretation, for example, took my students almost 40 minutes – but they did it, and they were absolutely delighted when they realized they were that much closer to unlocking some of the themes of the novel they were reading.

MSTV has enabled some of my shy and more reticent students a chance to speak up and have their voices heard. They feel much safer answering questions in their group than in front of a whole class. I am now certain that every one of my students participates in class discussions, and this has enabled my students to develop their curiosity and to dig much deeper into content.

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