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Let’s Talk About It

What does it mean to be literate in our society today? How does one become “literate”? And of course, how can we "prove" literacy? We are told to “assess” our teaching and our students by “checking for understanding.” What is understanding? Can understanding exist even in the absence of articulation? Our students are under intense pressure to prove their literacy through observable processes, such as the ability to articulate or write out their thinking. Teaching in a school where language delays and vocabulary gaps are common, I realized that my students would need exposure to thought provoking conversation, vocabulary, and questions with more than one right answer. They needed rich exposure to discussion and debate, the ability to listen and engage with texts in a variety of ways, and meaningful practice responding to each other in order to translate these verbal skills to their reading comprehension and writing craft. The school that I teach in is located in a predominantly low-income area of Brooklyn. During this inquiry I was the special-education teacher in an integrated co-taught first grade classroom of 24 students. Many of my students with IEPs received speech therapy services based on their expressive and receptive language skills. 
First grade is a big year for students as they are expected to make a huge growth in reading stamina, volume, phonics, and comprehension. At this developmental age students are also still working on developing the social and emotional skills to be successful in traditional school settings. I felt torn at the beginning of the year, knowing the mountain of learning we needed to hurdle ourselves over academically and emotionally. I noticed early on that many of my students did not have the expressive language skills to adequately respond to comprehension questions. I also noticed that it was these same students who began to wait for other students to throw up their hands and respond to questions during instruction and that I would often call on them to maintain the flow of instruction and pacing. I realized that the problem had many sides. 
At one of our earliest inquiry-to-action team sessions we discussed inclusion and ran through a list of read-alouds that promoted some of the social and emotional learning that I strongly felt needed to be included in our day-to-day curriculum. We were also introduced to inquiries and research conducted by past cohorts. During the interim between the earliest sessions I began to try out some of the strategies past projects had incorporated such as using sentence strips with questions written out to support focused listening during read-alouds. I also tried out some of the read-aloud titles focusing on social-emotional themes.  An idea was born. I wanted my students to access complex concepts in texts, build language skills through debate and discussion, and flexibility in thinking all through the exploration of social-emotional, or what my students know as “life skills," themes. 

My Inquiry Question

What sorts of structures, supports, practices, and materials would help all students participate in whole-class conversations, and also encourage them to direct their conversation to each other to build off of each other’s contributions?