By Jazmin Rotger de Parra and Kristin Nuñez

Teaneck Public Schools

Like many of you, we are still navigating the world of remote instruction and virtual classrooms while wanting to stay focused on providing academically rigorous instruction and having high expectations for all students.

At the center of most of our decisions is the idea of instructional equity. Equity does not mean that every student should receive identical instruction. Instead, it demands that reasonable and appropriate accommodations be made as needed to promote access and attainment for all students (NCTM 2000)[i]. Up until now, the decisions that led to a greater degree of instructional equity largely occurred in schools and classrooms. But now we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

…we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

During the 2019-2020 school year, the use of Accountable Talk practices was a pedagogical foci for our Grades 3–5 mathematics classrooms. Through our work, we incorporated and refined our use of discourse and supported students as they engaged in verbal, visual, and written communication. We increased opportunities for students to learn from one another through the collaborative clarifying of ideas, unpacking misconceptions, and making connections across different ways of doing mathematics. Because of our focus on the use of Accountable Talk practices in the classroom, we know how important talk is to developing mathematical understanding. And even in the time of COVID we are continually trying and tweaking different ideas and approaches during online instruction to foster a learning community that engages in meaningful math discussions that advances student understanding.

Mrs. Nuñez is one of our third grade teachers, and she continues to reimagine instruction while holding students and the role of instructional conversation at the center of her efforts. Read on as she describes her first-hand experience with establishing Accountable Talk discussions in her classroom and then transitioning to accountable communication between and among her students and herself in an online world.

Why focus on talk, and specifically, the use of Accountable Talk practices?

From the moment a new group of learners come together, establishing community is vital for their academic success, and the foundation of the community is talk. Skillful teachers recognize the power in leveraging talk to guide understanding and collaboratively construct knowledge.

Building the community this year has been a bit different because we started the school year working online. For the first couple weeks of virtual learning, we engaged in many whole group conversations about respect, uniqueness, and culture. We centered our conversations around read alouds that focused on different social emotional skills. Over the course of a week, we developed class promises to hold each other accountable for our learning and make the most of our time together.

How have you been able to capitalize on the unique opportunity to build community from a distance while students are at home?

Even though I miss teaching in-person, one of the advantages of our current situation is that we have been able to truly expand the walls of the classroom to better encompass students’ lives at home. We unpacked and shared elements of our cultures to learn more about one another. From morning meetings and brain breaks to icebreakers and structured assignments, our classroom community is building a foundation of patience, perseverance, and celebration, which is integral to establishing community both virtually and in-person.

How did you start using Accountable Talk practices during instruction?

There is an assumption that students know how to talk about their thinking; however, this specific type of discourse needs to be explicitly modeled and practiced. Students need opportunities to engage in academic talk that leads to learning. Accountable Talk stems on charts or flip-rings can be used as scaffolded support and referred to during discussions. Similar approaches can be used when working online. Talk stems work because they provide students with diverse backgrounds a common language with a specific, intended conversational purpose to use during our discussions. As students take ownership of what it means to be accountable to their learning community, to accurate knowledge, and to rigorous thinking and truly internalize the expectations, academic conversations flourished, providing rich opportunities for students to build knowledge together and think deeply about content.

What conversation dynamics do you plan for during your instructional minutes?

At the beginning, we do a lot of partner and whole group discussion, and within that I balance student voices and keep mine to a minimum.

After routinely hearing and engaging in Accountable Talk discussions as a whole group, the students adopt the language practices and lead their own conversations—acknowledging and building on each other’s ideas, questioning one another, and supporting claims with evidence. The conversations can seem almost natural in small group discussions, partner conversations, and conferences with me.

I plan for a combination of teacher to student(s) and student(s)-student(s) discussions.

What challenge(s) have you faced integrating Accountable Talk practices into instruction, in person and online? How have you met the challenge(s)?

Though the path to having a language-rich classroom sounds easy, it is not. Not all students are comfortable exposing their thinking, especially when they are aware of the expectation that thinking can (and should) be questioned and challenged. As an adult, it is hard to feel comfortable with the idea that after sharing my best thinking, I am going to have to explore it more deeply—and publicly.

It takes time and intention to create an instructional space where students feel safe enough to willingly take these risks. Since some students may feel more comfortable than others with this exploratory thinking and talking, I have to think critically about the ways in which equity and engagement intersect.

One of the ways I’ve met this challenge, both in person and online, is by establishing expectations for participation. Within the structure and routine of a lesson, I find a variety of ways for students to participate. Everyone gets time to work on and is responsible for working on the problem independently. When working in-person, I have them talk with a partner who works at a similar skill level and pace. Then I have two partner groups talk with each other before we have our grand conversation as a whole class.

When working online, the students share their thinking in a variety of ways. One low-risk way I got them started was by using polls. The polls let me do quick whole class snapshots, and, using follow up “why” questions, let me hear from individual students about their thinking. I also have them use a collaboration board to share their thinking with others after working independently. They use a shared white boards or Google slide in breakout groups. I’ve had students take pictures and send them to me to share with the group. These intentional decisions are the scaffolds for supporting students as they grow their own Accountable Talk practices. Through these efforts my students are more comfortable taking academic risks and have learned the value in hearing and seeing diverse ideas from all members of our classroom learning community.

Say more about how and why you used the collaboration board with students.

When we first started digital learning, I was losing students left and right. Students and families struggled with using the attachments in “order” or had difficulty toggling between multiple sources. I needed to regain control of the wheel, so I researched and experimented with different apps and resources to better guide students in their virtual learning spaces. I searched for digital ways to increase and improve collaborative interactions among the members of our learning community.

I embedded virtual drawing and collaboration boards to engage students in our learning community. Virtual drawing boards allowed students to share their processes and thinking. These boards gave me an opportunity to digitally “walk” through my classroom—to listen in on student conversations, provide feedback through assessing and advancing questions, and make adjustments to my instructional practice. Collaboration boards provided students the ability to respond to the content and each other.

What else did you consider when making decisions about platforms?

These instructional decisions empowered students and created space for them to use their voices. It was important that I strategically chose platforms where they could share their diverse ideas in this virtual space not just with me, the teacher, but also with each other.

Jazmin Rotger de Parra is the Supervisor of Instructional Programs – Mathematics and Kristin Nuñez is a Third Grade Teacher at Teaneck Public Schools.

IFL Step Back

Mrs. Nuñez’s story illustrates the art and science of teaching. She tried several small tests of change as she translated her Accountable Talk practices from in-person to online instruction.

  • Honor students for who they are and all that they bring to the classroom.
  • Make time for and expect talk from students.
  • Provide scaffolds for students to support them as they engage in learning discussions.
  • Allow for a range of communication dynamics.Plan and experiment with different ways of getting students to collaborate and communicate with each other using pictures, images, and written words in addition to spoken words.

Click here to tell us how you are translating Accountable Talk practices during your online, in-person, or hybrid teaching. We want to celebrate your successes and support you in facing the challenges.

[i] p. 12. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Agency and Voice, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Math, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning