Engage Students with Dialog Beyond Stories!

Hi and welcome back to Attentionology for K – 5 Teachers!

I read a fascinating article recently about an American educator, Jane Vella, who developed an approach dubbed “dialogue education.” I’m not “talking” about story writing or telling in this post; it’s something different.

In a “nutshell,” the focus of “dialogue education” is on engaging students in ways that help them learn through talking and acting, not solely through listening to a teacher teach.

Vella, now 81 years old, developed and refined her approach over thirty years of teaching in many parts of the world, from New York City to Ethiopia and Tanzania to Nepal. Educators around the world that engage students this way may have been inspired by Vella.

Her inspiration for “dialogue education” was an experience during her first days of teaching with an out-of-control class of third grade students in Harlem, New York. Vella’s pleas for quiet were ignored until one of the kids jumped to her side and screamed to his classmates that Vella wanted the class to “shut up!”

Vella described that student as her “first translator;” at that moment she understood that a common language is a must for real learning to occur. “If I can’t speak their language, I can’t teach them,” Vella recalled thinking.

Stop and think for a moment about your own teaching experience. Have you ever presented a set of lessons, let’s say for example, in math to a class, thinking that students understood your teaching…regrettably to discover at test time, that their learning had fallen short.? Maybe not, but surely that’s been the experience of some teachers. If Vella were in this conversation, she’d likely suggest that the dialog between teacher and student was not strong enough.

Problem is, teachers work under such tight time restraints that it can be tough to assign time to lengthy conversations with kids about a single topic. According to Vella, one effective solution lies in teachers taking time at the beginning of a school term to learn about the lives of the children she/he will be teaching, like you see me doing in my blog pic below.

“Where have you traveled that’s special to you?”

I’m forced to use quick tools and tricks to learn about my students because I only work with each class for five days during a writer residency. Read on…

Many teachers I’ve worked with have been surprised to learn through my Odyssey programs – traveling the world of writing – that a number of students in their classes speak more than one language.

Try this engaging attention-grabbing trick – Suddenly speak in more than one language! Here’s how:

* At the beginning of a day, start class with an announcement that you’re going to take a fast trip around the world – traveling with imagination – before focusing in on the lessons and activities of the day.

* Ask kids to raise their hands if they’ve ever traveled somewhere special to them. (So as not to hurt the feelings of students who’ve not had travel opportunities, I always add these words, “Sometimes the most special place is very close by.”)

* Call on a few students with hands raised to say where they’ve been.

* Listen for mention of a visit to a place where the language is one other than your own. For example, in the classrooms I visit, at least one student always says, “I’ve been to Mexico.” When you hear mention of another language, speak a few words of it, like I do. I might say, “habla español aquí?” (“do you speak Spanish here?”) as I look first at the one student, then at the whole class. NOTE: Google Translation is a super tool to help you prepare for this trick. Check it out online if you’ve not already done so; select languages relevant to your location.

Here’s the key…with this brief dialog the class and I are communicating in a language that some of the kids likely speak at home. We’re connecting with a common language, and I’m showing respect for a culture other than my own, serving as a model for the whole class. 

Vella’s teaching and the educational resources that she’s developed place a premium on teachers showing respect for the students they serve. Some of her books are designed for adult education, as well as for children; they’re available through Global Education Partners.

Around the world teachers’  time with students is tight; the focus is on curricula and teachers and students often feel under pressure to perform well on tests.

Engaging students with dialog can help relieve students’ stress, benefiting everyone in the school community. 

A harvest of cards written by students telling what they want to know

At harvest time, which many parts of the world are enjoying now, here’s another attentionology trick you can do to engage your students with dialog – Fill a Cornucopia with a Harvest of What Kids Want to Know. Here’s how:

* Find or buy a cornucopia like you see in my blog pic here.

* Fill the cornucopia with blank cards or slips of paper, like the pic shows, and tape a sign to it that reads A Harvest of Want-to-Knows.

* At a time of your choosing, tell the class that you have something special for them at harvest time. Show the cornucopia and explain that YOU want to know what THEY want to know. That’s the beginning of a dialog.

* Walk around the room and ask each student to take a card or slip of paper. Instruct the kids to write one something that they’d like to know and tuck their paper back into the cornucopia that you’ll leave in a designated place. Set a time limit for your “harvest.”

* NOTE: An optional attention-getting harvest-time trick is to present the  cornucopia in a similar way BUT change your request. Ask students to write one something they’d like to share with the class.

How else to engage students with dialog? Use different expressions that communicate your interest in what the kids are thinking, what they want to say, what they’d like to do….when time permits. For example, I’ve had a lot of teachers tell me that they like the way I say to a student, “Hold that thought; I’ll get back to you.” Think about all of the engaging expressions that you already use, then look around and listen to others for new expressions to add to your repertoire.

Educators agree that helping children develop strong communication skills is mandatory for success in the world today. Engaging students with dialog helps them develop these skills.

Remember, you don’t need to be a magician to work magic in instructional settings!

Talk with you again soon,

Barbara ♥ The Lovable Poet

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