Conversations with Individuals

I think everybody is prone to some looking back and looking forward this time of year, so I might as well add to the deluge of posts that are reflective in nature.

In the midst of a school year that can only be described as unprecedented, I have managed to try out some new strategies and methods of reflection.  One of the most helpful tools I’ve used in reflection is the Teacher Report Card from Matt Vaudrey.  At the end of first quarter and second quarter, I gave students in my math classes time to complete a slightly modified version of the form Matt created.  The results are interesting, so read through Matt’s posts to get a more detailed idea of what you can expect to gain from allowing adolescents to anonymously analyze a teacher.  Rather than describe all of the results of the Teacher Report Card I gave just a couple weeks ago (and proclaim myself president of the Matt Vaudrey fan club), I’m going to focus on one question I included in my version of the report card.

As I was setting up the Google form for the second quarter Teacher Report Card, I decided to add a couple questions based on the differences I observed between first and second quarter.  Among the largest differences I noted was how I chose to conduct conversations.  I was wondering if my gut feeling would match student thoughts on the survey, so I added the item, “I think that Mr. Hall talks to me individually (one-on-one).”  Here are the results (1 is not at all and 5 is definitely):


The percentages were somewhat surprising, but the percentage of 3 or above was not that shocking.  During second quarter, I built more time into lessons for students to work with math.  Most of the time, these activities were in groups and I circulated to question students and check progress; however, I shifted to talking with individuals just as often as I talked with groups.  This difference might seem small, but I think it’s important for teachers to recognize the power of the individual conversation.

It’s easy to assume an entire group is comprehending a concept or skill, when in reality one or two people of a group are just following along and hoping to learn by repeatedly mimicking everyone else.  By questioning individuals as much as groups, I was able to better see which students actually knew what they were doing (and the depth of their knowledge).  I was able to offer help to students who just going through the motions with their group, then let them work with their group when they were feeling more confident.  I also liked the way I could praise students and encourage them to share when I called the entire class to attention to talk about problems.

Beyond talking with students during group work, I employed more individual conversations in the hallway or after class during second quarter.  The expectations students bring to these conversations is striking.  In most cases, a student had a look of dread of his/her face upon hearing my request for them to go in the hall or stay after class for a moment.  This expression slowly relaxed or a small smile appeared (a rare win when working with 8th graders) as the student heard what I had to say.  Most of the time, I was either celebratory (praising or encouraging hard work, thoughtfulness, leadership, etc.) or inquisitive (questions about group dynamics, level of understanding, comfort with the topics, etc.).  Even when I was celebratory, I included a question or two for the student to answer to make it a conversation.  I wasn’t talking to a student.  I was talking with a student.

I think most students associate hallway (or after class) conversations with negative behavior or poor grades.  When I flip the script students expect for these conversations, it creates moments where I get to know my students in detail.  I see which student responds better to praise for work, which student wants to be a leader, which student recognizes he/she needs to be more confident, and which student secretly cares more about his/her grade than he/she would ever admit in front of peers.  I get feedback about what’s working or not working for a student.  I chip away at the mental armor that so many students put on every time they walk into a classroom full of peers.  Basically, I like the way individual conversations allow students and myself to see the human element to the learning process.

I hope to continue my use of individual conversations during the second semester.  Hopefully, the number of 1s and 2s in the third quarter Teacher Report Card will be lower than the results for second quarter.  More importantly, I hope my students will recognize that I teach them as individuals just as much as I teach entire classes of students.  I also hope that I can change the stigma of the hallway conversation.  The fact that almost every student I talked with in the hallway this quarter was full of dread is an unfortunate product of how most teachers use these conversations.  Why does the deserted hallway during 3rd period (or any period) need to be a place for the uncomfortable conversations?  Can we make 2017 the year when teachers changed how they use the hallway for conversations with students?



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