Monday, January 20, 2014

When Walls Talk

This year, I was fortunate to get to turn one entire wall in my classroom into an idea wall using Idea Paint. Floor to ceiling, corner to corner became an empty canvas for my students to brainstorm, share, collaborate, problem-solve and create ideas using dry erase markers on this wall. This wall has become an integral part of our learning environment that the students are always eager to share with visitors to our classroom.

Since painting the wall in August, I have been eager to facilitate a Chalk Talk activity with my students. This is an activity where students are given a prompt in the form of a quote, piece of text, or open-ended question; they respond using only the comments that they write on the wall. There is complete verbal communication. Those of you who know me know that it is rare that our classroom is completely silent. My students are accustomed to commenting, discussing, and debating everything. It is a room filled with words. But for this activity, I wanted them to focus on the text and ideas written by their peers, free from the distraction of noise.

For our prompt, I wrote the poem "Night Comes..." by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers. We are in the midst of a grade-wide collaborative unit on space. I selected this poem because it is full of imagery, figurative language, and it lends itself to many different interpretations. I explained the procedure for a Chalk Talk to my students, and then we each took a dry erase marker. They understood that this was an activity that involved thinking critically, not superficially.

Initially, I predicted that this activity would have a duration of ten to fifteen minutes. In actuality, we passed the thirty minute mark and the students were still going strong. Their comments reflected how deeply they were contemplating the text. They connected this poem to a wide variety of other literature and pop culture. They internalized the lines of poetry then transposed them through the filter of their personal experiences. My learners not only identified the elements of imagery and figurative language, but also analyzed how her careful selection of words could translate into their own writing. My students not only commented upon one another's thoughts, but also asked questions to push one another's thinking. Through this silent conversation, they demonstrated a sense of respect and empathy for one another that had not been evident before this activity.

This learning activity was met with an overwhelming sense of pride and enthusiasm by my learners. They realized that sometimes we need time away from the distraction of the spoken words to truly reflect and deeply understand written text. In our go-go-go world, students have often never had the experience of stopping, being still, and just thinking. This activity taught them the value of quiet contemplation. Once we completed the Chalk Talk, they all sat back and pondered the ideas that had manifested themselves in a new way. Before leaving, they took out their devices to document their learning. As one looks at the finished product, you can see how the students created a map of the intersection of their lives and Beatrice Schenk de Regniers' words. It was a truly moving experience.

I encourage you to consider facilitating a Chalk Talk with your students whether you have a wall to write on or you need to cover it with paper. What you will realize is that your students have mind-boggling ideas trapped in their heads; ideas that may never be shared in a class discussion. As their teacher, we always need to find ways to unleash their voices. I'm confident that you will discover like I did, that learners are overflowing with ideas we never imagined. All we have to do is put the pen in their hand.

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