Listen to my interview with Jeff Frieden (transcript):
In our dreamiest of teacher dreams, some of us might imagine days when our students spontaneously erupt into complex, nuanced conversations about the things they’re learning in our classes. If we borrow the language of the Common Core, they would “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And maybe the “teacher-led” kind is possible, because we could structure and guide it, but that doesn’t give students much ownership of their learning. In groups? That might be a bit harder to accomplish. And one-on-one? Well, how do you even manage that?
Jeff Frieden, a high school English teacher in southern California, wondered the same thing. Wanting a less teacher-centered class, he was looking for ways to get students talking to each other about the content. He’d tried all kinds of techniques— think-pair-share, appointment clocks, groups of four—but none of them gave him the results he was looking for.
When he tried to get the whole class talking in mixer-style activities, they would “poke holes in those systems,” he said. “They just kind of work their way around it to end up talking to their friends, and it becomes more social than content-centered interaction.” Meanwhile, he also discovered that many of his students, who had gone to school together for years, didn’t know each other’s names.
Then one morning, just a few minutes before class started, he came up with something new on the fly: A simple system for getting every student in the room to talk with every other student, a way of tracking conversations over time so that students had a reason to reach out to people they never interacted with, and have more meaningful, content-based discussions with each other. Since he started using this method, Jeff says his classroom just feels different. Students are taking more academic risks, diving deeper into the content, and actually getting to know each other.
Here is the Ongoing Conversations system Frieden uses to get his students talking:
- Each student is given a conversation tracker, a chart where they keep track of the conversations they’ve had with other students in the class.
- Students are to have conversations with a minimum number of other students (set by the teacher—about 75 percent of the class) over a predetermined period of time (say, 2 to 3 weeks). These conversations can be structured, based on topic prompts supplied by the teacher.
- On their tracker, students record the name of the person they talked to, the date of their conversation, and a one-line summary of what they talked about.
- Once a pair of students has had a conversation, they may not return to each other until after they have reached the minimum number of unique conversations set by the teacher.
The image below shows one version of a conversation tracker, where Frieden’s students were discussing a novel they’d read.
Currently, Frieden scaffolds the conversations by supplying topics for each round of conversation; students are not left to come up with ideas on their own. He projects these topics one at a time on Google Slides: “It might be something as simple as, Explain one thing that really confused you from the chapter to your partner.” Sometimes he’ll recycle a topic by having students switch partners, then summarize the conversation they just had with their last partner.
On the first day Frieden tried Ongoing Conversations, “It went surprisingly well,” he says. “I was actually shocked by how well it was going. And it was more content-centered talking, too; it wasn’t just about their social lives. They were really responding to the prompts that I was giving them and talking about the book.”
Now that he’s using the strategy on a regular basis, he’s found that it delivers several benefits:
More Students Engaged
Before switching to this method, Frieden believes far fewer students were actually participating in his class.
“For years, I was seeing what I wanted to see with student interactions,” he says. Although his class discussions felt lively, “I might have like a third of my class really interacting.” Moving to Ongoing Conversations gave more students an opportunity to really participate in discussions.
Simple, Actionable Formative Assessment
When he uses Ongoing Conversations, Frieden says, “My check for understanding is by walking around. The other day my sophomores were talking about Animal Farm, and I had asked a question about Clover, and there were way too many of them saying, ‘Clover? Who’s Clover? I don’t know who Clover is.’ And so I just went, ‘Okay. Time out.’ And then we talked about that character and her relevance in the story.”
As a formative assessment method, Ongoing Conversations offers two advantages: It lets teachers take immediate action—like in the scenario above—and it gives them less work to take home. “I don’t need to do exit tickets, I don’t need to do quizzes,” Frieden says, “I collect less work, but students do more.”
Works with Other Strategies
This method can be blended with other discussion and instructional strategies. For example, if Frieden is having students do a philosophical chairs discussion, he might have them turn and talk with someone on their side of the room, then record that interaction on their conversation tracker.
Not Just for English Class
Ongoing Conversations is a strategy that can be used in any content area. Although Frieden initially structured these conversations around literature, he quickly realized they could be expanded beyond that. When he moved students into an inquiry-based research project, he continued using the conversation tracker, swapping out literature-based questions with prompts that centered on the research students were doing.
Grading and Assessment
Do these conversations get a grade? When Frieden first started using this system, he gave students a small amount of points for these conversations, and that would work in a points-based classroom. This year, however, he’s been working toward a modified version of a gradeless classroom, where a student’s course grade is determined by a conference in which the student must justify how well they’ve met the standards.
Frieden has found that knowing these conferences are coming is what generally keeps students motivated to give the Ongoing Conversations a good effort; they know Frieden is paying attention. “I’m watching,” he says. “I’m going to hold you accountable to this, and eventually we’re going to have a conversation. You’re going to have to look me in the eye and say, ‘This is what grade I deserve,’ or ‘Here, I can justify this grade.’”
Tips for Success
Don’t “Free-Range” It
Frieden did not just hand students the charts and tell them to start talking: Even though they are in 12th grade, they needed a bit of structure for the strategy to be successful; younger students would need even more scaffolding. In addition to providing questions for discussion, talk with students ahead of time about behavior expectations, how to initiate conversations, how to ask follow-up questions, and even how to record the content on the tracker. You might even want to model a conversation fishbowl-style, with you as one of the participants, so students can see what a good quality conversation looks like ahead of time.
Frame the Discussion Through a Helping Lens
To relieve the anxiety students might feel about these conversations, Frieden launches the conversations by framing them through a lens of mutual support.
“I’m going to come clean that I’m a confused reader,” he tells them. “Join the club. When I read something for the first time, it’s always confusing, and I need help to understand it. So let’s basically form this class-wide support group here for struggling readers, and as we go through this, let’s talk about the things that are perplexing to us that we don’t get, words we don’t understand. Maybe we miss a detail that our partners or our friends figure out, so they can help us.”
Setting this tone has helped student relax. “They kind of know, ‘Oh, okay. We’re just in here to kind of feel our way through this novel,'” Frieden says. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
The Value of Conversation
Giving students regular opportunities to engage in rich conversations is good for them in so many ways. “There’s tremendous benefit in getting past some of the socially awkward stuff,” Frieden points out. “And really just learning how to interact with another human being will actually enrich your academic life too.”
Students are recognizing the benefits, too. “Even though they’re struggling through the discomfort, they say that it’s exposing them to ideas they wouldn’t have considered had they just been asked to do it alone or respond on a worksheet,” Frieden says. “I had one student who actually wrote a lengthy response saying, You know what? I don’t know if I’ve changed my mind, but I just told myself, ‘For the sake of this, I’m going to be open,’ and it’s actually changed the way I think about this issue.”
It was one of those rare moments when you know you’re doing something right.
“My teacher nerd heart was singing that day.” ♥
You can learn more from Jeff Frieden by following him on Twitter or visiting his website, Make them Master It, where he shares tons of great ideas and insights about teaching. You can read his original post about Ongoing Conversations here.