So much attention is paid to reading and then to writing in the first years of school, that it is easy to overlook the importance that conversation — that first language-based connection we ever have with our children — continues to hold. In our fifth and sixth grade group, it is central to our work together. By making space for conversation, by intentionally building the skills needed to be competent in conversation, and by valuing conversation — be it around the lunch table, between friends, between children and adults, or between older and younger children.
One of the things we’ve been talking about is current events. Last week, for example, a much anticipated first presidential debate took place between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The anticipation was not necessarily positive in tone, but it was hard to listen to or read anything and escape mention of it. The young people in our group were buzzing about it as well, and many (not all) in the group watched at least pieces of it. The next morning, a little over half of the class was in the room at the beginning of the day because the rest were attending a bus meeting. As we waited for those folks to join us, and informal conversation started around the “big table.” Rather than fret about the tone or the messages of either candidate, the conversation turned to nervous habits — the physical things the candidates (and each of us) does when under pressure. We also acknowledged the power of particular statements, whether we agreed with them or not. It was helpful to reflect on the persuasiveness of an argument, or at least its attractiveness to its intended audience. It was a very humanizing discussion, not a polarizing one. Conversation at its best.
Likewise, we discuss the articles, cartoons, photographs, and charts found in Junior Scholastic, a news magazine aimed at a middle school audience. Children have taken home an issue to read over a week’s time, and at the end of the week the group offers five or six articles or sections they would like to discuss. We mark locations in the room for each of the conversations and every person is free to choose the conversation of their choice. After about 15 minutes of conversation (and the room is really buzzing with it), each of us is invited to make a different choice of discussion. We regroup, and do it again. The goal is to step away from teacher-led conversation. Every person is invited as an equal participant. When we (as adults) can stay out of the way, it is impressive to see how well even quieter children jump at the chance to share their ideas. People talking in groups do the same kinds of things at any age — they struggle to stay on topic; they try to balance participation without domination; they connect what they are discussing to personal stories.
For all the reading and writing we will be doing and encouraging, consider also the tremendous value of conversation — how can there be more of it? And how can adults practice listening as well as speaking, so that children can speak?