Allison Escher

English language arts fellow

Kerri Messler

K–12 ELA and Library Coordinator
Schenectady City School District 

Contextualizing the Work

The Institute for Learning (IFL) and Schenectady City School District have worked collaboratively for several years, and this year, we continued our ongoing partnership with a focus on using improvement science methodology to “get better at getting better.” District-wide, there is a focus on using improvement science to work on persistent problems of practice. In this article, we will share 10th grade teachers’ journeys to improve the quantity and quality of Accountable Talk® practices in the classroom and discuss how improvement science informed teacher instruction and learning.

We began this work by studying quantitative, large-scale data (e.g., Regent exam scores), classroom-level data (e.g., ELA tasks and questions), and components of the curriculum to help us think about the problem of practice which focused on the plateau of improvement in secondary ELA, specifically in the area of reading.

During the second semester, the 10th grade PLC decided to focus on students’ use of Accountable Talk practices. The goal of increasing Accountable Talk practices aligned with the teachers’ beliefs around the importance of student-centered and engaging classrooms.

Sharing Teachers’ Small Tests of Change

During the third nine weeks, teachers tackled the following problem: Students are not utilizing the high-leverage practice of Accountable Talk and holding conversations with each other; instead, students direct their responses to the teacher and often use an Initiate-Respond-Evaluate pattern. Additionally, teachers reported that students have little stamina for student-to-student discourse. Teachers began by creating student-centered lessons using engaging and relevant texts and planned to study how many students talked and how much time students spent talking. Upon reflection, teachers realized the data they were collecting wasn’t actually what they cared about learning—or at least not the whole story of what teachers wanted to learn about and improve regarding Accountable Talk practices in the classroom. Teachers were able to say how many students talked and how many minutes per class students talked, but were unable to discuss the quality of student talk. While the quantitative data met teachers’ goals of increasing the amount of time students spoke to one another during class, teachers questioned their ability to accurately discuss evidence of student learning. They asked questions such as “Was the talk academically productive?” and “How do I know my students understood the text?” Our takeaway was that we need to think carefully about what we want to know (in this case, not only how to increase student-to-student talk but also how to increase high-quality, text-based student-to-student talk) and what practical measures will help us understand the answer.

During the final nine weeks, teachers tweaked their problem statement: Students are not utilizing the high-leverage practice of Accountable Talk and holding high-quality, student-driven discussions. Teachers collaboratively designed and implemented complex and engaging texts and created cognitively demanding tasks using student-centered routines (e.g., quick writes, pair share, whole group discussion). They also designed a rubric to help qualify how they define quality talk. During implementation, teachers planned to study the quality of the talk and the talk moves that both teachers and students used to make meaning. During their last professional learning session, teachers shared that students were using moves and functions, but superficially. Teachers hypothesized the belief that in order for discussion to be academically productive, students (and some teachers) think that the language they use must be Standard English. As a group, teachers decided that a next step would be to emphasize the thinking and what students say instead of how they say it. In other words, teachers want to study the student thinking more than the words or talk moves.

Teachers’ next action, which they plan to focus on in the upcoming school year, is to scribe classroom discussions when implementing a high-level task using a rigorous and engaging text. The purpose is two-fold: (1) to collect classroom data in order to analyze the quality of talk based on rigorous questions and (2) to find authentic examples of talk moves that students use regardless of chosen dialect. For example, instead of a student saying, “I’d like to add on to what Andrew said,” a student may say, “I feel Andrew because…” Both statements work to link contributions regardless of the exact words that students say during the discussion. These examples of student talk moves will be used to refine the Accountable Talk® Moves and Function tool used in Schenectady High School. Our working hypothesis is that authentic examples of rigorous thinking will help illustrate that the talk stems are meant as entry points into conversations, but should not be used in formulaic or generic ways that don’t move the conversation forward in academically productive ways. Our hope is also that it helps students and teachers alike develop an understanding and respect for diversity in language use.