Monday, October 1, 2012

Unzipping Their Lips

While in my car the other day with my daughters, my oldest said she wanted to tell me a story.  “You have to be really quiet and listen, Mama.  Are you listening?  Close your mouth.  Zip your lips?  Did you lock them?  Okay, now throw away the key!  Once upon a time….”

Hearing my daughter tell me to “zip my lips” reminded me of that phrase I used to hear frequently in my childhood.  I am not exactly sure where she first heard that phrase (she’s not in school yet) but I am pretty sure it was uttered by a well-meaning older teacher at church who was just trying to get her restless young students to be quiet for a few brief moments so she could teach the lesson.

I don’t hear this phrase very often as I coach in different schools.  Even though it has a bit of rhyme and sounds like a cute analogy, I think most of today’s educators know that telling students to “lock [their] lips and throw away the key” is probably not best teaching practice, especially with bilingual learners. 

However, while we don’t explicitly tell them to be silent, we often communicate that desire in more subtle ways:
  • ·     We tell them that we only have a few minutes to get our lesson in (because that’s true!) and there’s no time for talking or questions.  We barrel through the lesson to get it “done”.  We know that teaching does not necessarily equate to learning but we have a scope and sequence to stick to and there are just too many other constraints on our day.  Taking time to allow a child to slowly process their thinking in verbal form seems like a luxury rather than a necessity.
  • ·     We just plain get carried away with our own fabulous explanations and demonstrations.  I mean, seriously, WE are the ones with a college degree, right?  Of all people in the room, shouldn't we be the ones receiving the most air time?  We are the ones that spent the weekend planning the lesson and search Pinterest for the best anchor chart.  The students will inevitably talk once we send them back to their seats.  Is there really a need to interrupt our lessons to allow them to talk?
  • ·     We allow time for talk but fail to provide the appropriate scaffolds to make it productive.  Perhaps we have been trained and converted from the two bullet points above.  We are believers in the importance of talk but making it happen feels clumsy and unsuccessful.  We post prepackaged language frames on our walls but we forget to incorporate them and they quickly become wallpaper to the students.  While students are talking during the lesson, their talk is not necessarily focused, academic, and productive.

Talking helps us process our thinking and internalize our understanding.  Allowing time for students to talk is an investment.  Sometimes, we don’t see an immediate return on our investments.  And, as with anything we are invested in, we know we should plan carefully ahead of time

So, here's my question, how do you make space for your students' academic conversations in your classroom?  How do you remind yourself mid-lesson to make it happen?  Please share your ideas!


  1. Having some build in process - think to self, then share with a partner time has been such a wonderful new part of my teaching in the last 4 years. They need that time so much when they are learning a second language especially. I explain that there is time for teacher to talk (give the lesson) then I demonstrate and ask students to model it with me, then I turn it for the students to do, or share, or talk. So, when it is the teacher talking time (NOT ALL day long), I do ask for them to be actively listening. It makes me sad when they can not focus for even a few minutes because they miss the lesson or demonstration, then they have no clue what to do because they did not pay attention for the few minutes. Still trying to change this up - sit with a bilingual pair, have someone else review, or have someone tell that student what we are supposed to do.

  2. I have been trying to build in language by requiring students to respond in a complete sentence. Sometimes it is so hard because of time constraints, but I think it is important {especially in the bilingual or DL classroom}

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  4. I do lots of turn-and-talks during my lessons. I've also been trying some of the Power Teaching ideas (especially Teach-Okay). When I do turn-and-talks, I always give my students a sentence starter--many of them won't start talking (in either language) until I give them a stem, even if it's as simple as "Yo pienso que..."

    Also, sometimes kids get really excited about something we're learning and they have so much to say about it they can't contain themselves! At times like that, I used to get frustrated, but now I realize that if their talk is academic, why not just let it flow? So the other day when they got really excited about a picture of an egg with a baby chick in it, I said, "Turn and tell your partner what you see. GO!" And then I just gave them a few moments to say whatever they wanted, just to get their ideas and observations out (but gave them a specific time limit, after which point they needed to return to active listening so we could finish reading the book). It was great!

  5. Speaking is one of the basic skills that must be mastered by students since it is very important for them to communicate in the class or outside the class.
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