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Using Chalk Talk in the Classroom:
An Opportunity to have a Conversation in Writing
Judi Fenton

Chalk Talk is a silent conversation in writing that allows students to have an equal opportunity to participate. It is a versatile protocol that can be used for many purposes. Students and teachers love it!

Here’s the protocol, adapted from the website of the National School Reform Faculty.

Process

  1. The facilitator explains VERY BRIEFLY that Chalk Talk is a silent activity. No one may talk at all and anyone may add to the Chalk Talk as they please.
  2. The facilitator writes a relevant question in a circle on the board or chart paper. (I prefer paper. You’ll find out why by the end of this article.)

    Sample questions:

    • What did you learn today?
    • How can we keep the noise level down in this room?
    • What do you know about Croatia?
    • How are decimals used in the world?
  3. The facilitator either hands a piece of chalk or marker to every student, or places many pieces of chalk or markers at the board. Students can comment on the initial question—and subsequent comments—by simply drawing a connecting line to the question or comment.
  4. People write as they feel moved. They can read and respond to the comments of others. There are likely to be moments where not much seems to be happening—that is natural, so allow plenty of wait time before deciding it is over.
  5. How the facilitator chooses to interact with the Chalk Talk influences its outcome. The facilitator can stand back and let it unfold or expand thinking by:
    • circling other interesting ideas, thereby inviting comments
    • writing questions about a participant’s comment
    • adding his/her own reflections or ideas
    • connecting two interesting ideas/comments together with a line and adding a question mark

    Being an active participant encourages students to do the same kinds of expansions.

  6. When it’s done, it’s done.

Practical Uses for Chalk Talk

Assessing prior knowledge
Before starting a unit I assess what the students already know about the topic so I can plan my instruction accordingly. I find Chalk Talk to be a valuable assessment tool. Begin by writing in the center of the chart paper, “What do we know about (the presidential election process, sharks, the circulatory system, families, the moon, etc.)?” and let your students write all they know on the page. Leave the chart up for the entire unit, using it as a resource. As you progress through the unit ask your students to correct any misconceptions that they may have had at the outset.

Assessing what was learned
At the end of a unit, I often harbor a secret wish that I could go inside my students’ heads to see what they’ve really learned! Lacking that ability, I find asking them to have a conversation in writing to be a great alternative. Ask, “What did we learn about (the Industrial Revolution, spiders, the Brooklyn Bridge, exploding manhole covers, etc.)” Then compare what the students say they’ve learned with your goals or expected outcomes for the unit. Not only will you assess your students’ learning, you will be able to assess your own teaching and determine whether your goals were appropriate to begin with.

Discussing difficult issues
Sometimes it’s hard to get kids to talk about certain issues, especially when it involves their own behavior in a group. Chalk Talk can be a way to overcome this problem. On your chart write the question, “How did we work in our groups to complete this project?” Tell your students that no individual names may be used. Stand back and watch them go, they might be writing till next week. Next, write the more important question, “What can we, as a group and as individuals, do next time to make sure that the group works better?” I find my students really begin to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Solving problems
When there is a problem in the classroom (interpersonal or related to an academic issue) that is likely to cause arguments, denials, or defensiveness, Chalk Talk once again proves useful. “What can we do about our class’ behavior with the art teacher?” can generate great ideas, as can, “How can we make sure that we all do the homework that is necessary for our class work to progress?” All the suggestions can be compiled and a course of action decided upon by the class.

Recording what was discussed
When a Chalk Talk discussion is over, I have a written record, if I did it on chart paper. I have compiled many Chalk Talks. I categorize them, look for commonalities, count how many people said what, etc. I give the compilations back to participants to expand upon even more.

Communicating to others
Chalk Talk communicates a large body of knowledge to an outside group or individual. Students in one first grade class did a Chalk Talk to communicate to kindergarteners what they can expect to do and learn in first grade. Consider showing the classes Chalk Talk pages to your principal. It’s an effective way to convince him or her that your class needs playground time or that class trip!

The benefits of using a conversation in writing are enormous. To start, quiet students have as much opportunity as outgoing ones to offer their thoughts. Your class clown cannot as easily disrupt this conversation, nor can your most articulate students dominate. Given the reflective nature of Chalk Talk, you’ll also find that dissenting viewpoints can be more easily “heard” and responded to in a thoughtful fashion.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’d love to hear other ways you’ve used it. And, if you don’t have any objections, I could share your ideas in future articles, citing you and your school.

E-mail Judi.

 

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