Build Relationships With and Between Kids: One of my favorite quotes comes from Nel Noddings who said "The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter." Unfortunately, most school systems seem to have this ethos reversed. Before any child can engage in discussion that asks him or her to bravely give opinions and share ideas they need to feel safe and respected. Building a classroom community where caring matters; where all ideas are shared; and where a respectful challenge of ideas is the norm can raise the level of quality talk in the classroom. Consider how seating impacts community building (desks in rows kills it). How are shy kids given safe access into a discussion? What about kids some perceive as unlike them or "different", how are their ideas honored? Set aside daily time throughout the school year to establish positive relationships with and between students. Feeling squeezed for time? Remember this: The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.
Leverage Pop Culture. If you want kids to talk about books, you first need to get them to talk about what they know, and this is often found outside of school. Out of school literacies include video games, television, sports teams, music preferences, hobbies, etc. Ask kids to opine on these favorite topics. For younger students, think about t.v. shows that they watch: What kind of personality does Austin have on Austin and Ally? For older students: What makes someone famous on Vine? Why do you like them? Unsure what kids are into? Watch the Kids Choice Awards. Below are the most recent winners:
Favorite TV Show: Victorious
Favorite Reality Show: Wipeout
Favorite Cartoon: SpongeBob SquarePants
Favorite TV Actor: Ross Lynch
Favorite TV Actress: Selena Gomez
Favorite Male Athlete: LeBron James
Favorite Female Athlete: Danica Patrick
Favorite Book: The Hunger Games Series
Favorite Video Game: Just Dance 4
Favorite App: Temple Run
Favorite Movie: The Hunger Games
Favorite Movie Actor: Johnny Depp
Favorite Movie Actress: Kristen Stewart
Favorite Animated Movie: Wreck-it Ralph
Favorite Voice From An Animated Movie: Adam Sandler
Favorite Female Buttkicker: Kristen Stewart
Favorite Male Buttkicker: Dwayne Johnson
Favorite Villain: Simon Cowell
Favorite Music Group: One Direction
Favorite Male Singer: Justin Bieber
Favorite Female Singer: Katy Perry
Favorite Song: What Makes You So Beautiful
Bridge to Academic Language. Now that you have their attention, bridge the discussion about pop culture to academics. Before any child engages in discussion around a book, they need to have experiences using the academic language of "book talk". Marry the pop-culture discussions to academic language by having them state opinions (My opinion about Vine is); give reasons (I think One Direction is... because...); state disagreements (I disagree with this because...). Create visual scaffolds through anchor charts that help kids internalize this academic language.
Facilitate Don't Mediate Discussions. One of the biggest mistakes teachers make with small group discussions is that they let kids go rogue and/or just rely on sticky notes in books to steer the conversation. Worse yet, they mediate every student turn (initiate, respond, evaluate, and repeat). These discussions often go nowhere or are so shallow that no critical thinking happens. Readers who struggle need a teacher to help guide discussions. However, this doesn't mean mediating the talk. Rather it means facilitating the discussion: connecting students ideas; posing thoughtful and provocative questions; providing counter arguments, and so on. Students should talk more than you.
Wait it Out. Wait time has been a buzz word in education circles for some time, so it's perplexing how much we struggle giving it. Maybe it's because five seconds can feel like you're stuck in purgatory when no one speaks in the classroom? Nevertheless, providing just 3-7 seconds of wait time (over the standard one second rule that is found in most classrooms) improves student achievement. Zip it up and wait for kids to respond. Chances are they will.