THE SECRET TO Meaningful Discussions?  

Try These 5 Techniques that Ensure Students Do the Talking

We all know the statistics and, well, we talk right over them! Teachers do far too much talking in the course of the day, and students do far too little.  I don’t say that to teacher-bash, but rather as a way to invite you to hit the pause button on over explaining and over guiding, and try these techniques that lead to student-driven, amazing discussions about the content you teach.

  1.     Model the mindsets. You gotta be all-in! Fully commit to the goal of your students controlling the learning conversations. Talk about and co-construct charts of the characteristics of productive dialogue. The key characteristic? Active listening, which means students concentrate on what the speaker is saying and push aside distracting thoughts. Active listeners learn to respect theories and conclusions that differ from theirs—as long as the text provides adequate support for the assertions.
  2.     Remember, old habits die hard. Raising hands doesn’t cut it during student-led conversations, so you’ll have to wean students off of that tradition. Instead, students talk, one at a time, while peers listen and process ideas. Once a student finishes, a peer jumps into the conversation. Tempted to rescue the conversation? Hold your breath, count to 10, trust your students. With practice in whole group, small group and partner discussions, your students will thrive in a month or two.
  3.     Equip students with an arsenal of question types. Model what it means to arrive at a guiding question, and then coach students to develop their own.  Guiding questions are those that can go broad and go deep, and align with students’ authentic curiosities about an issue.  For example, fourth graders were investigating self-selected books on natural disasters. Students agreed on this guiding question: How do natural disasters affect people’s lives? Even though each student read a different book, the guiding question was broad enough to stimulate rich conversations. Interpretive questions are also open-ended and have more than one answer. Have students consider verbs that will help them pose interpretive questions: analyze, examine, compare and contrast, evaluate, show, classify, I hand out lists of prompts to keep discussion flowing to each student, so they have this concrete support at first.
  4.     Find your new niche. During discussions, especially as students are just getting the hang of purposeful dialogue, listen from the sidelines and every once in a while, and only when absolutely necessary, pose a clarifying question—one that nudges students to get back on course or go deeper in some way. For example, maybe the question gets a student to say more, define a term, go back to the text, or think about whether he or she still believes his position. Author Renee Houser reminds us that a lot of this nudging can be done without our even talking! Think about non-verbal gestures and facial expressions that might work.
  5.     Be a social engineer. One of the many benefits of student-led discussions is that they allow you to listen and look at your students in new ways. Ask such questions as: Who is doing most of the talking? Which kids are obsessed with the same authors or topics? Who is particularly adept at active listening or posing questions? Which students have natural rapport? Who might I pair that may be in different groups of friends, but I now see will be great talk partners?


Laura Robb is a renowned literacy author, whose most recent book is Read, Talk, Write: 35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction.

Flip The Traditional Teacher Read Aloud

By Lester Laminack

Enjoy, as Lester guides you from teacher-centered to student-centered teacher read alouds!

When you reach the end of an article, a story, or a book do you reach for your notebook to answer a set of questions written by someone else?  Do you feel that your understanding of what you have read, your worth as a reader, hinges on being able to give the answers to someone else’s questions?  Probably not.  Yet it seems that much of our reading instruction relies heavily on having our students answer a set of questions after they complete a reading assignment.  Following reading with a set of questions is a longstanding practice in literacy education.  In fact, many commercial reading programs follow this pattern.  One well-known program assigns a point value to each title, then has the children read and log on to a computer to read and answer a set of 10 multiple choice questions. Other programs have students read then write answers to similar questions. And if we are teaching from a literature-based approach that doesn’t rely upon a commercially produced program we tend to have our own questions to hold our students accountable.

Questions Can Create Patterns

As teachers, most of us were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy as undergraduates in a teacher education program.  We likely practiced developing questions for each of the levels in the taxonomy and began our teacher careers believing that it was our charge to develop good questions that would hold our students accountable and yield proof that they read and understood the assigned text.

We sat with our notepads at hand and read the books, articles, poems, and various other texts our students would read across the year.  We paused at various points in the text to draft the questions we would give our students.  We were attentive to character traits, shifts in the plot, nuances in word choice, the author’s use of simile and metaphor and figurative language.  We noted allusions to cultural references and other literature.  We were alert to the role of setting in the text, the way the author used dialog, bias, and narration.  We read closely and synthesized as we developed the questions we would present to the students.  Questions, whether presented by the program or developed by the teacher, may fall into a pattern or categories.  For example, questions about the main character, physical descriptions, main idea, vocabulary, opinion, evaluation, analysis, synthesis, inference, etc.

As students read and respond to the questions presented they begin to recognize the patterns as well.  Does this impact the way they read?  Does it shape what they tend to notice and pay attention to?  In other words, are they reading with the pattern of your questions in mind?  If the answer is, yes, then what are they failing to notice?  What is the cost to comprehension and attention and engagement?

Get In Touch With Ways You Read

Consider your own thought process as you read a text with the intention of writing questions for students to answer.  Are you beginning with a frame in mind? That is, do you begin with thoughts focused on Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?  Or do you begin with the intention of finding three detail questions, two questions about the character’s motives, three questions that require the reader to interpret, two that require analysis, and one that calls for synthesis?  If the answer is, yes, then how does this frame influence YOUR approach as a reader? How does that process differ from the way you approach a professional text or a book you have selected to read for pleasure?  How does the approach effect your engagement with and your comprehension of the text?  Chances are that you read differently when you read for pleasure than when you read with the intention of developing a set of questions for your students.

Who’s Doing All The Thinking?

I have come to believe that the person who is asking the questions is the person who has done the thinking.  As you read to develop the questions for your students you were summarizing the text at critical points.  You were evaluating the merits of details and the use of Literacy devices.  You were synthesizing information and generating new thoughts.  You were noticing were the text called for an inference or expected you to have adequate background knowledge to connect to a metaphor or allusion.  In short, you were doing the deeper thinking, the more thorough analysis as a reader in service to the development of questions that would yield the proof of your students’ connections and comprehension.

Time To Flip the Read Aloud

I invite you to try something the next time you are reading aloud to your students.  As the story draws to a close and your voice delivers the last line simply close the book and exhale.  Pause for a few seconds and let silence settle over the group.  Then, look at them and speak quietly:  “Think for a few seconds.  Don’t speak yet, just think if you could speak with (author, illustrator, character, expert—beekeeper if the story is about bees, etc) what are the three best questions you could ask?  Think about that, please.  I’ll ask you to share your questions in just a moment.”

Have your notebook ready to jot down the questions as they share. At the end of the day when the students have boarded their buses to leave, revisit those questions and place them into four categories: Vocabulary, Background knowledge, Schema/conceptual frame, and other.  Take note of where the majority of the questions fall.  Think about what this reveals to you about their understanding of the text.  

I’ve come to believe that I find out more about where their understanding fails by examining their questions than I ever got from checking their answers.  

Lester’s books are on Amazon!

Learn more about Lester Laminack, check out his website!

Follow Lester on Twitter @lester_laminack

Is Something Holding You Back? Educators Time To Let Go

A new year is starting, 2018. What can you let go of?  Metaphorically speaking our plates only have so much room to add more and more. At times we need to let a few things go to make way for the new.  I suggest letting go of what might be dear to you but no longer serves a purpose or something that is holding you back for the goal you have set for yourself.


Years ago I was told a story, a story I will now share with you. It is a story that can change you.  The story starts with a group of people on a boat a few miles off the shore. There is a party going on. People are having a great time and admiring one lady who has a huge precious stone on her neck. It is clear to everyone the pride the lady has in her necklace.  


The water starts to get rough, but the party continues.  Many, including the lady with the necklace, are dancing right by the railing of the boat.  Suddenly a wave hits the boat; the lady screams as she falls overboard. Three people rush to find a life preserver.  With a life preserver in hand, a man leans over the railing in an attempt to toss it to the lady; she is starting to go underwater.


At that moment the man yells to the lady, ” Get that big necklace off your neck and you will be able to float towards the boat. Then I can save you!” The lady goes underwater and comes back up and yells back, ” I’ve had this necklace my entire life, I can’t do it.”


That is the end of the story.  The lady faces a choice: she could die or free herself by letting go of what she holds dear.


As 2018 begins, what necklaces are you wearing and how are they holding you back? Free yourself and let go.  Take an honest look at the five questions I often ask myself and others:


  1. Is it good for students today, or did it work better years ago?  

There are often things we do or curriculum we cling to that has no relevance to students today. When I was an English teacher, there were a few books that I loved and taught every year.  Eventually, I learned my passion for those books simply was not resonating with students.  I moved to new books and made much better connections with my students.


  1. Are certain strategies or practices no longer effective?  

I will have an entire blog on this topic, but many teachers like to lecture.  Often they idolized teachers who taught them with lecture and with pride carried on the tradition.  All traditions are not good.  Classrooms defined by lecture have no place in our schools; it is time to change.  Have the courage to do so.


  1. Do I cling to practices that tie up my time but serve little purpose?  

Years ago I knew a teacher who would come in tired a few days a week.  One day I asked him why?  He said he was up all night grading journals.  I thought about it for a minute and suggested he not do it anymore.  It was not received well.  His necklace stayed firmly in place.


  1. What can I let go of to bring more technology into my classroom?

Classrooms of the future will use technology to transform learning.  I do not see technology taking the place of a teacher, but I do believe all great teachers will effectively use technology. What can you change to make technology a more viable part of your classroom? What do you need to let go of to allow this change to happen?


  1. Is my attitude holding me back?

We control our attitude. Being a positive person is a choice, so is the opposite.  Positive educators can change lives and change the trajectory of students.  Take an honest look at your attitude and the mindset you choose.


As you move into 2018, don’t let fear prevent you from dropping what is holding you back.  Grab some of the fearlessness our students have, take some chances, be intrepid. Take risks and make a difference in the lives of those you teach and in the lives of everyone you know.

Learn more from my book The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic

2018! Help Your Teachers Create 21st Century Classrooms

To succeed in school, compete in the job market, and become a contributing citizen in our democracy and the global economy, our students need to learn in classrooms that develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.


You can motivate and engage teachers to consider what kinds of instruction develop these skills by having them learn during faculty meetings in ways that you want their students to learn. When teachers experience great 21st-century classrooms, innovative types of learning become a part of teachers’ DNA and open conversations about how the 4 Cs will impact learning in their subjects.



I recommend that you set aside three faculty meetings for teachers to experience the 4 Cs and connect what they’ve learned to classroom practices. It makes no sense for principals to expect students to collaborate and problem solve and then lead faculty meetings where teachers passively sit and receive information. A faculty meeting can and should model expectations for how teachers interact with students in the classroom.


To get the process going start by dividing teachers into groups of four to six and have them choose articles to read about the 4 Cs and 21st-century classrooms before your faculty meeting. In the box below, I’ve created links to five sources.




  • Organize faculty into groups of four to six, introduce the 4Cs of 221st-century learning, and invite teachers to discuss why these are important for the challenges our country and the world face today.
  • Have each group choose a spokesperson and share with everyone what their group discussed. Record teachers’ ideas on a whiteboard. Have teachers choose two articles to read.
  • Close the meeting by asking teachers to discuss and share ways they can integrate into their classrooms: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
  • Have a reporter for each group write on chart paper their top three ideas and share with the faculty to end the meeting.


  • Recap what was discussed at the first meeting by posting the teachers’ ideas you recorded on chart paper.
  • Have groups read a different article, discuss it focusing on: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.
  • Repeat how you ended the first meeting. This might seem repetitive but it is not.  It is valuable to spend time on what is important; the revisit helps communicate this important message to staff.


You’ll find that even with reading and discussing articles, teachers depth of understanding will vary, this is perfectly fine.  Like their students, their background knowledge and personal experiences will determine the types of suggestions they offer. But over time, if made a focus, staff can collectively come to a deeper understanding of the 4C’s.

Below you’ll find some examples of how teachers at your school can foster and build 21st-century skills into students’ learning experiences. It’s helpful for teachers to discuss these suggestions through the lens of how each one fits into their subject.

  • Encourage teachers to abandon rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into partners who report back to the group. Remember sitting in groups but doing the same work done in rows is not effective.
  • Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turn-and-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner, using questions the students themselves composed.  Then, students can make the transition to small-group discussions.
  • Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two sentences.
  • Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments to read an article on their computers shared through a Google Doc. Then, let the communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and questions.
  • The next step might be to use Google Docs with students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. Also, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece, play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and respond to.
  • Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who explains the ideas discussed in the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.
  • Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements, vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have members discuss the questions and then present their findings to the class. To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking.


Encourage teachers to work closely with a colleague, choose a strategy they’d like to implement, share ideas, observe one another’s classes, debrief, and when they’re both comfortable, try another one. I always invite teachers to start small and add new strategies slowly to ensure success and maintain the desire to develop the 4Cs in all students. The 4C’s are often referred to as 21st Century Skills; soon it will be 2018 all schools should focus on these skills!

Check out my book! Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, By Evan Robb

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