WILLA v5 - Establishing Learning Patterns

Volume 5
Fall 1996

Elementary Section Editor:
Establishing Learning Patterns

Sara Allen

Most of us concerned with gender equity are familiar with Failing at Fairness, Myra and David Sadker's indictment of the ways in which girls' voices are silenced in classrooms as early as first grade. We have worried about how to change cultural habits that suggest that boys' and men's voices are more important and that girls and women are expected to listen when the talk is important. After all, their talk together is often labeled as mere "gossip." As a teacher of sixth and eighth grade girls, 1 straddle the worlds educators have defined as elementary and junior high. 1 watch sixth graders begin to confront issues of voice and power as they move from childhood into early adolescence. (Those battles about who is "in" and who "out" in sixth grade are crude struggles for dominance, the "hidden wars" permitted girls-and women.) I watch eighth graders become increasingly aware of the conflicting messages the world offers them about their roles as women: be good, be strong, but don't be too aggressive (i.e. powerful). To help me bring these issues into the classroom, 1 have purposely developed curricula with female writers and protagonists, chosen themes relevant to young women, and sought ways to make gender issues a part of class discussion. Recently, 1 have focused on classroom talk to help me emphasize the importance of individual voice, especially for girls. Much of the work of school is done through talk-between teacher and individual student, teacher and a group of students, students in small and large groups-and the teacher's attitude toward that talk can create a climate in which talk is acknowledged not only as the currency of most communication but also as a source of knowledge and, ultimately, power.

As a teacher-researcher in both middle and upper school (or junior high and high school), 1 have worked alone and with a collaborative team to study classroom talk over the past ten years. 1 have studied both all-girls' classes and coed classes in seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades [see "Classroom Talk," in Independent School, Fall 1994, written with Anne Cantor, Heidi Foster, Helen Grady, and Pamela Hill]. These studies reveal patterns of talk that work not only for girls but for boys, in other words for many students regardless of gender. These patterns of talk encourage open exploration of ideas, awareness of the processes of learning, and a sense of collaboration for discovery rather than competition to arrive at the right answer. These patterns are created by teachers who use their skills to shift the authority of knowledge-making as often as possible to the students so that students can be in charge of their own learning. My point in this column is that patterns of teaching and learning that acknowledge the role of classroom talk can and should begin long before high school.

In elementary school, students often work together in pairs or small groups. They are used to talking together to learn, a pattern high school teachers often try to recreate in small group work. From their experience in "circle time," many are also used to listening to their classmates. They are used to being in the same room for many activities or subjects and moving freely from activity to activity under the supervision of one tear-her. Teachers can and do make the rules of talk a part of the curriculum of the class: when do we talk, when listen, what kinds of talk are appropriate, how is school talk different from playground or home talk? Discussions of how students talk together can be part of the work of the class: How do boys and girls talk together? Who is talking. Who listening7 Who gets to talk? Why?

When students move to departmentalized classes in middle school or junior high, they have many teachers and the patterns of discussion change. At Springside, we are quite conscious that we are teaching the girls how to talk in the forum of the whole class. They learn to talk, listen, and learn with a larger group of classmates. This is a major transition, one which teachers can orchestrate carefully and consciously. Middle Schoolers have little reluctance to speak; the challenge is to move them to listen and to respond to one another rather than to simply blurt out what is in their heads. One particularly rowdy sixth grade class taught me to carefully structure discussions of the novel we were reading together and to slow down the pace of the questions so they would not run away with the talk. I talked about how we would talk together. I noted on the board the names of those who blurted out answers or questions without waiting for their classmates to speak. I had to wait before I called on students to answer a question. In 7th grade, they were able to talk in the forum of the whole about Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with considerably less direction and interference from me. They had some tools for talking together: stay on one topic, refer to the book, listen to the speaker, build on what that speaker said. They were self-conscious about their growing ability to talk and listen together. By eighth grade, they were ready to talk together about a book without my direct intervention; they became a kind of large book group!

Most exchanges in whole-class discussions are initiated by the teacher, who asks a question or calls for a response; one or more students are called upon; the teacher evaluates those responses. To encourage peer talk, or exchanges among students themselves, the teacher needs to be willing to turn the talk over to the students. Making this talk an articulated and visible part of the class is a conscious approach teachers can use to encourage voice. The teacher might begin a class by asking each student to bring in a question or an issue for discussion. This works especially well with novels. The list is put on the board and the students choose the ones they want to discuss. Or students are asked to choose passages they have enjoyed and tell what they like about the passage. Discussion often opens up as students hear classmates read and discuss something they, too, enjoyed. Frequently, students will talk back and forth with one another, developing an understanding of character or situation that builds from their own reading and thinking rather than from the teacher's questions. The larger point is that teachers at all levels can help students use talk as a tool and at the same time work with them to create a classroom in which all voices are valued, in which differences are acknowledged, and in which power is more equitable regardless of gender, race, or class.

As with most educational issues, the solutions are up to individual teachers wrestling with a myriad of social, political, and educational demands. Teachers teach in countless situations, work with students of all sorts and abilities, and struggle with problems particular to individual schools and classrooms. But teachers can be agents of change who strive to create equitable classrooms for all their students.

© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation

: Allen, Sara. (1996). "Establishing Learning Patterns." WILLA , Volume V, 4, 35.