Translating Accountable Talk® Practices Between In-Person and Virtual Teaching

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

Principals Leading with a Coaching Lens

By Ariane Watson and Veronica Strueve

Principal and Assistant Principal, Propel Schools- Pitcairn
Before becoming building principals, we were instructional coaches, each of us having coached either mathematics or ELA. Instruction was always the focus of our coaching work. After several years as principals, we realized that though supporting teaching and learning was a component of our work, it was no longer the focus. Once we came to that realization, we knew that we needed to make some changes.

At the end of the 2018–2019 school year, in anticipation of the next year, we took stock of what was going well with instruction in the classrooms. We reviewed the state data across the years and looked more closely at the district and building data. We also inquired about new instructional materials being purchased by the district and learned that the new materials were comprised mainly of tasks and texts of high-level cognitive demand.

The insights we gained from this preliminary work suggested that students needed more rigorous learning opportunities and that teachers needed opportunities to learn about and refine their practices related to instructional conversations. It was at that moment that we committed to making support for instruction the priority, and in doing so, revived our coaching lens.

We engaged the Institute for Learning as a partner in education and began crafting a plan for the 2019-2020 school year. We started by conducting an Asset Walk was which allowed us to name aspects of classroom practice that could serve as the foundation on which to build. With the adoption of high-quality instructional materials, we decided that the best way to increase academic rigor and enhance the quality of scholar discourse was to focus on Accountable Talk® practices.

We knew that as instructional leaders, the changes we sought would only happen if we maintained a laser-like focus on facilitating Accountable Talk discussions and supported teachers in both learning and refining their instructional practices. Although we were in the role of principals, we knew that putting on our “coaching hat” was key to supporting the teachers. With this in mind, we built a yearlong PD plan dedicated to the study of Accountable Talk practices. It included a series of cross-content professional development sessions. The sessions provided educators opportunities to gain insights about high-leverage instructional practices of which facilitating Accountable Talk discussion is one, the dimensions of equity as related to equitable instruction, ways to support the development of student agency, and the role of socializing intelligence. The plan allowed for frequent content-based PLCs so that Accountable Talk practices could be explored deeply within a content area. As part of the PLC work, educators coded classroom transcripts for Accountable Talk features to better understand what it takes to implement these practices and to track the implementation of these practices over-time.

Since we know that refining practice doesn’t just happen overnight, so in addition to the work outlined in the PD calendar and plan, we also linked our walk-throughs and formal evaluations to the learning and insights gained by educators during PD sessions and PLCs. We also committed to providing time for classroom educators to reflect on practice through classroom case stories so that they can share their implementation journeys. The work also includes learning labs so that classroom educators can see each other engage in planning for, facilitating, and reflecting on Accountable Talk discussions of high-level tasks.

As a community of educators, everyone is encouraged to continuously look for and name what is working related to the implementation of Accountable Talk practices, so there is regular feedback on our collective efforts. As part of the feedback (and central to improvement work), we wonder about and identify a specific aspect of practice for further inquiry. We know that sustainable change takes time, and we have committed to a three-year process to support classroom educators as they refine their professional skills and competencies related to content pedagogy.

Having the intentional focus of increasing academic rigor and the use of the high-leverage practice facilitating Accountable Talk discussions has allowed us to reclaim our coaching lens. And, in doing so, we have been able to more effectively support classroom educators as they refine their instructional practices to create more equitable learning environments.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Amplifying the Academic Rigor in Math Classrooms: Butler Area School District’s Journey

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

Getting students to think deeper about the content takes intentional choices and instructional moves on the part of teachers and administrators. One of our partners, Butler Area School District in western Pennsylvania, has worked this year to increase the academic rigor in their mathematics classrooms.

The district has worked in several arenas in order to focus the work. Teachers and administrators have worked on curriculum mapping in all areas so that content and standards are linked. Through a partnership, the Institute for Learning (IFL) has provided professional development. The PD focused on the use of high-level tasks in math classes, teacher questioning to press on deeper student thinking, and how to engage students in Accountable Talk® practices. As a result of the PD, the district is working to include tasks of high cognitive demand in the curriculum map for every grade level. Data is being collected as an indicator of the effectiveness of the curriculum maps.

Victoria Bill, math fellow with the IFL, has been working with Butler Area School District. She reflects on the impact of the PD in the district: “Teachers recognized that their students were not getting enough opportunities to think and reason deeply about mathematics. Teachers worked together to identify the high-level tasks or to modify tasks to increase the demand of tasks. All the teachers in the districts used the high-level tasks identified, thus giving students opportunities to problem solve and to reason about mathematics.”  

Hopp and Robb also share that there are still areas of need. “One of our biggest struggles is having a large number of teachers across six buildings. This means that there are six different administrators who are supporting this work. Logistics, communication, and coordination are a big challenge. Our strategy for consistency has been to select high-level tasks that are integrated into the curriculum map. Every teacher at the grade level will complete the high-level tasks. Our hope is that this provides accountability for implementation.”

That said, the district is already seeing the impact of their work both in the classroom and on high-stakes assessments. Hopp and Robb stated that the pedagogy studied in the IFL PD sessions “provides a basis for making our classrooms more student-centered. The use of Accountable Talk practices has increased the communication between students and enhanced their ability to discuss mathematical concepts.” In addition, they share that there have been increases in assessment scores: “We have seen significant increases in our PVAAS (Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System) growth scores. We have also seen increases in most of our buildings in the number of students scoring advanced on the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). We feel there is a direct connection between our work with IFL and these increases.”

Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership, Math

The Principles of Learning in Action

By Dr. Annine Crystal

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Guilford Public Schools

Contributor: Emily Jermine

Math coach, Melissa Jones Elementary School

Dr. Annine Crystal
Guilford Public Schools

The Guilford Public Schools’ vision is that of a professional learning community where instruction invites effort and supports academic rigor for all students and educators. To that end, our daily work in classrooms is rooted in and supported by the Principles of Learning (POLs). These nine principles have been foundational to our work over the past 10+ years.

The importance of the POLs in Guilford is evidenced by just how prominently they factor into ongoing district work. Prior to the start of the school year, Guilford administrators participated in a retreat focused on equity.

A portion of the retreat was a retrospective on the Principles of Learning during which each POL was defined and mapped to both the high-leverage practices and the TRU Framework.

Administrators watched several classroom scenarios and considered the application of the Principles of Learning as a way to frame instructional conversations with their faculties. Principals and administrators brought this work back to their buildings to support a deeper understanding of each principle as well as to clearly represent each principle’s impact on classroom instruction. 

A deep and growing understanding of the Principles of Learning has been established through our long-standing partnership with the Institute for Learning and is reflected daily in our schools’ cultures and in the way our students engage with content and process.

In our classrooms, we see evidence of the Principles of Learning in action every day. For example, our content-focused coaches have supported teachers as they continue to grow their conferring practice.

Effective conferring helps teachers and students develop clear expectations for growth and encourages self-management and self-assessment of learning.

Clear Expectations:
Student-generated criteria chart clarifies expectations about quality mathematical explanations

Self-Management of Learning:
This student identified “Use precise math vocabulary” as a goal and is keeping notes on a sticky note to support her progress.

Effective conferring helps teachers and students develop clear expectations for growth and encourages self-management and self-assessment of learning. Teachers keep notes of conference teaching points and use these notes to track the trajectory of learning, to plan, and to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each student. Conferring also facilitates the identification of strengths on which to build and the creation of goals for improvement by the students themselves.

Let’s step into a classroom to see the impact of several of the Principles of Learning, specifically Clear Expectations and Self-Management of Learning. Students in Ms. Pierce’s 4thgrade classroom at Melissa Jones Elementary School have been working on clearly communicating their mathematical thinking.

This work has included using visual representations as well as written and oral explanations to clarify and make visible mathematical reasoning. After engaging in this work on several occasions, students were given the opportunity to individually reflect on their areas of strength as well as the concepts they find challenging. 

Following this self-reflection process, the class worked as a whole to brainstorm elements of a quality mathematical explanation. This, in turn, led to a class-generated criteria chart indicating the qualities of effective communication of mathematical reasoning upon which all students agreed. Each student used this checklist to self-assess one of their previously recorded mathematical explanations and then identified one area to set as their goal for better meeting the criteria for quality explanations. A copy of the chart was posted in the front of each student’s math journal and is being used independently by students as a guide when reviewing mathematical explanations and monitoring progress towards an identified goal. Teachers are able to reference this student-generated tool when conferring with students in order to better ask advancing and assessing questions that push students’ thinking around mathematical reasoning.

Clear Expectations:
The student-generated criteria chart is posted in front of a student’s math journal for easy reference.

Tagged with: Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Engagement vs. compliance: Looking closely at criteria charts

Kristin Klingensmith

IFL Mathematics fellow

Criteria charts that spur students to engage with the content matter actively are more likely to align with the Principles of Learning, so analyzing the criteria is critical. We have to consider if the combination of expectations results in active engagement with mathematical ideas that leads to deep understanding or simple compliance of learned procedures and rules.

Take a moment to review the two quality work criteria charts and consider the differences in their potential impact on student engagement with the mathematics they are studying.

A quick search on the Internet surfaces hundreds of suggestions for getting students engaged in mathematics classrooms. In this article, we are going to take a closer look at one of the ideas, the use of criteria charts.

Criteria charts are not new to mathematics classrooms. We have seen criteria charts for student work, for rules/procedures for problem solving, and for ways of working or talking during a mathematics lesson. Regardless of the focus, the chart serves as a physical embodiment and public naming of expectations.

Quality Work Chart A

1. Name is at the top.
2. All parts of the question are answered.

3. Number model is included (expression, equation, inequality).
Other representations are optional.

4. Description of how you arrived at the answer.
5. Evidence that the answer has been checked is included.

At first glance, it seems as if criteria charts would align with three of the Principles of Learning: Clear Expectations, Self-Management of Learning, and Recognition of Accomplishments. And though criteria charts have been leveraged by students to manage their learning and by teachers as guides to help decide what to recognize as an academic accomplishment, it is not that simple. It is not that simple because central to the Principles of Learning is the active pursuit and use of knowledge on behalf of the learner. Inherent to this is the idea of active engagement, where the learner actively uses their existing knowledge to construct and refine their understanding of a concept. (Be sure to look for future articles related to Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum, another of one of the Principles of Learning.)

As you likely noticed, the criteria in Chart A is about compliance. Chart A criteria focus on rote application and completion. Students can meet all of the criteria on this chart without having to think critically about the mathematics they are studying.

In contrast, the criteria of Chart B sets the expectation for students to be actively making sense of and exploring mathematical ideas. These criteria, framed through a series of yes/no questions, have students analyze their work. The criteria target specific practices that students who are working as mathematicians should employ, such as creating and connecting mathematical representations. When students connect representations, they have to “translate” the mathematical idea in different ways. There is an explicit expectation that students refer to their representations in their explanations and include mathematical reasoning. The criteria also signal to students that they have to extend their thinking beyond the problem to look for similarities to other problems and mathematical ideas. In short, the criteria of Chart B is more likely to result in students interacting with and making sense of mathematical concepts in ways that require actual engagement with the math rather than just compliance.

Quality Work Chart B

1. Have I responded to all parts of the problem?
2. Does my response include at least two different representations (words, equations, diagrams, graphs, tables) that can help people understand the work?
3. Are the diagrams, tables, and/or numbers in the equations labeled so others know what is being represented?
4. Have I made connections between representations?
5. Does my written explanations refer to the story problem, equations, graph, tables, and/or charts?
6. Does my written explanation contain my mathematical reasoning?
7. Have I referred to other similar problem or mathematical ideas?

Having established that the Quality Work Chart B contains a combination of criteria designed to support students’ active engagement with the mathematics they are studying, let’s think about how such a chart can be used to support the three previously mentioned Principles of Learning: Clear Expectations, Self-Management of Learning, and Recognition of Accomplishment.

Clear Expectations: The expectations messaged by the criteria of Chart B are clear. When such criteria are publicly posted and regularly discussed, students have a means of judging their work and the work of others. The criteria also establish for students the practices they should use when engaging with mathematical explorations.

Self-Management of Learning: By using the criteria of Chart B, students can actively monitor and revise their thinking. We have to keep in mind that hanging a well-designed criteria chart on the wall does not automatically mean that students will use it to manage their learning. Teachers need to refer to the criteria regularly, using it as a tool to support students as they work. In this way, the criteria provide scaffolding for students, which they use less and less as they internalize the practices and expectations.

Recognition of Accomplishment: The criteria provide teachers an outline of what to look for in mathematics classrooms. Because the criteria cover a range of practices, teachers can highlight incremental steps in student performance to increase the number of criteria evidenced in the student work. Teachers may recognize some students for creating multiple representations, others for the connections they make between representations, and still others for the mathematical reasoning they provide.

Additionally, teachers can publicly share examples of student work that meets specific criteria, which not only serves to recognize the student’s accomplishment, but also provides a model from which their peers can learn. Acknowledging students for the real work of making sense of and sharing their understanding of mathematical ideas is essential to promoting active engagement.

Tagged with: Math, Principles of Learning