Building Spaces for Conversation and Intellectual Play

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My move to fifth grade this year disrupted a lot of my classroom routines. Last year’s fourth-grade classroom was self-contained; I taught the same learners all subject areas over the course of the day. This left me with a lot of flexibility to add and subtract time depending on where the learning was taking us, and I knew the children as learners really, really well.

Now I teach only some subject areas — three blocks of Science and one of Reading and Writing in forty-three minute blocks of time. As every classroom teacher knows, routines are at the core of what we do. They allow us to focus learner attention and to dispense with loads of explaining so we can get right to the thinking. They allow us central themes off of which we can riff.1

My colleague, Heath, and I are experimenting with a new classroom routine for these small-block classes. It’s an adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, which we call Task of the Week (ToW) because we wanted the children to think about a wider range of “text” — fiction, poetry, art, photographic images, primary historical sources, and video along with the kinds of informational text more closely associated with Gallagher’s Article of the Week. Our goal is to have a significant, student-led conversation about the “text” at the end of the week, a conversation that deepens our understanding of what the text might mean, how the “author” created that meaning through craft moves, and why that text might (or might not) be important beyond the text itself. The children know that all of the meaning-making work they do during the week is in preparation for this discussion at the end of the week. Our thought was that this weekly discussion would create an authentic reason for a deeper reading (close reading?) of the text, something that is often missing from close reading activities, in my opinion.

We read closely so we have something to say about the text. We want to have something to say because we have experienced the joy of building ideas in the company of others.

What Readers Really Do2So, here’s how T0W works (so far, it is a work in progress): Early in the week we introduce the children to the “text” without a lot of pre-teaching or background. The students annotate it looking for details they think are important. They generate questions that the text brings to mind. This early stage work is deeply connected to the kind of inductive thinking that Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse outline in their book: What Readers Really Do.2

Our text for last week was a poem by Valerie Worth, “Camels”, from her book of poems, Animal Poems. We felt it was rich enough that the students could find meaning on many different levels.3

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning...

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning…

We look at the early work the children produce, oftentimes conferring with them as they engage with the text. The data we gather at this stage helps guide our mid-week work, which is always based on a “writing to learn” activity, but might include additional reading to provide historical background, mini-lessons to explore author’s craft moves, to more prosaic lessons on how to use an online dictionary (as was the case last week!) The mid-week work includes a Google Doc with some questions that are designed to help the students draw together (synthesize) some of the details and questions into rough-draft interpretations (ideas) they have about the text. We conduct mini-lessons on how to write in a speculative, tentative manner. For example, we provide them with some statement stems, model for them through our own writing how to do this kind of writing/thinking, and offer examples from student work from the week before.

Last week, after conferring with some of the children as they worked through the early stages of Worth’s poem, I realized that the students might be interested in some additional background material about the Silk and Spice Roads, so I wrote up a short narrative of that historical moment and tried to tie it to the reading they had done about the Age of Exploration in social studies.4

Also, as I wrote this historical background, I realized that the poem had helped me now see the camel as another piece of “technology” that had become obsolete with the advent of the new technology of wooden sailing ships and more advanced cartography. Strange that I had never thought of the Age of Exploration that way before!]

Here's a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

Here’s a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

At the end of the week, we prepare a special place and time on Friday afternoon for a fishbowl discussion of the “text.”5 We have about 6-7 kids in the center gathered around the table while the rest of us ring them as observers. We choose a group goal to work on and each participant chooses an individual goal, too. Then we follow a rough protocol for the discussion (adapted from the Paideia: Active Learning website and Socratic Seminars) that begins with a period of time where we develop a shared basic understanding of the text. We follow that up by a period of time where we explore the ideas of the text. Our goal for the discussion is NOT to argue any particular point of view we have, but to explore the ideas in the text. We consider our discussion successful if we have developed a deeper understanding of the text. We always check in to see if that occurred.

The discussion is entirely student-led. I remain outside taking notes. Occasionally, though, I may interject to name a conversational move that we have identified as a goal, or that we have not yet explored. For example, last week I briefly interrupted the conversation when I heard one of the children say: “So, just so we are clear about what we are talking about, I think we are saying that this part of the poem might be meaning X. Is that right?”, which was such a wonderful way of summarizing and bringing the group together. Since we had not officially “studied” that conversational move yet, I thought it important to notice the move. All I said was this: “What Tamie just did is called summarizing and it is a very sophisticated way of talking about ideas. Its purpose is to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and is ready to build on an idea that you all share. In the back of your mind, I want you to think about what effect that move had on the conversation as it develops.”6 Then the conversation moved on. Several other students “tried out” summarizing as a “move” during the remaining conversation.

Finally, early the next week, we open up a discussion thread in our Schoology course. We raise questions that were still “live” at the end of the face to face discussion. In this discussion, all the kids can participate, not just the ones who were in the center of the fishbowl on Friday. We have found that, even as early as we are in the process, this online discussion space opens up more room for ALL children to participate, not just the ones who are best at inserting their ideas into the live discussion. This discussion is “open” all week. Usually, we spend 20 minutes on Monday talking to each other online. It is strange, but very interesting, to watch the kids interact with each other, even though the room is quiet except for the clicking of keys.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.


I have noticed several good things that have come from this rich classroom routine. First, I see evidence that the children see the discussion as a way to deepen ideas, not as a way to engage in “one-upmanship.” Here are some examples from the notes I took during last week’s discussion:

G1: OK. I came into the discussion thinking the “precious waters” were pretty much about water. Now I think the poem is more about all the precious things that are inside a person, even if the outside is not so good looking.

B1: I now think this poem might be about not really judging a person by what is on the outside, but by what is on the inside.

G2: If we think that stanza 3 and 4 might be about what is on the inside and stanza 1 is about…like how ugly maybe the outside is, then what do you think stanza 2 is about? How can we connect these two ideas?7

B2: When I first started thinking about this, I could NOT figure it out! Then I thought that maybe the poem was about a pirate and there being some buried treasure. I think I might be sort of right about the pirate and the treasure, but now I think it might be about treasure that is not like really buried treasure but all the stuff that is inside that no one can see.8

Second, these examples, at least to me, show children having fun “playing” with ideas. This move toward intellectual play, I think, is a crucial, though little talked about habit?/skill? displayed by good learners.

Third, this routine seems rich enough to play with, too. For instance, I have provided a lot of the focusing questions that are designed to deepen our reading of the text early in the process. As we get comfortable with the process, I think it would be fun to have the children generate the questions to think about for our “writing to learn” section of the process.

So, routines have been difficult to create this year. I find myself in an alien environment; getting used to that environment is taking longer than I thought it would. However, I’m curious to see where this new routine will take us as the year goes along.


  1. It is always a balance between creating routines that become, well, too routine and having few routines. Finding routines that are rich enough to last is difficult for me.
  2. Our thought was that by embedding this inductive work in a culminating discussion, the children would get repeated experience seeing the value of noticing details and generating questions that would be used later on as they began to synthesize ideas about the text.
  3. It was a lot of fun to read the text closely with Heath. Last weekend we emailed each other our own close readings of the text and discussed it over email. It was really fun to do this kind of thinking together. I only wish that we could do more of this as part of our district mandated professional learning.
  4. I think it was a good move to delay this background until the children had grappled with the second and third stanzas of the poem. For instance, they immediately took to the online dictionaries — an early mini-lesson last week — to find out the meanings of the words camphor, amber… as well as “ancient sway” and others. It was really fun to see the wide eyes and hear the gasps of realization on Wednesday when they read my short piece on the Spice and Silk Roads.
  5. Our preparation for these discussions is also a place we can conduct mini-lessons on how to have a discussion. These mini-lessons happen throughout the week and often range from more formal mini-lessons about paraphrasing or eye contact or building ideas, to incidental teaching when we hear a student make a “move” that could be used in our conversations.
  6. I find Peter Johnston’s work to be really helpful here. He suggests that a powerful teaching move is to “notice and name” what we see happening around us so that learners can see how the choices they make in the moment of an authentic activity are helping them accomplish that activity. The act of bringing those moves to consciousness can be empowering!
  7. I know. I was blown away by that one, too. She asked people to make that move much better than I could have!
  8. And this, from a child who just recently came off the “special education” list, which just demonstrates the point he was making about the poem, I suppose.

12 thoughts on “Building Spaces for Conversation and Intellectual Play

  1. I love the way you have structured this (for lack of a better word) activity, Steve – there is such a rich mix of open ended but scaffolded discussion, and written response. I am so impressed with the way your students “talk” to each other online – this, to me, is the true test of effective modeling and instruction. Your kids were focused and intentional in their responses – mirroring countless classroom discussions, no doubt. Thanks for sharing this – you and your kids are always inspiring in your collective embrace of meaningful learning.

    • It has been difficult for me to figure out new routines, but this one feels good. Even though we’ve had many good conversations over the months, this feels different to me because it is mostly student-led. They really have stepped up. I’m really liking the online component to it, too. We recently made the transition to a digital learning environment (1:1), which has made a big difference for how we are able to collaborate with each other. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how effective the digital conversation has been, when coupled with a face-to-face conversation. The digital environment seems to open up space for different voices to be heard. The fact that it is asynchronous also seems to help. Interesting…

  2. I love the way you’re calling this “intellectual play,” Steve. It seems like you’ve identified that the children are quite capable of this and that our job is to develop structures and environments that will support those habits of heart and mind. That you’re being so public in your reflections and in documenting the children’s thinking and your moves supports that development. These are all things we’ve been playing with at Opal School, too!
    Warm regards,

    • Matt,
      Thank you so much for stopping by. You may not know this, but I am a huge fan of the work that you are doing at the Opal School. I have learned a lot from watching your posts there, as well as from your comments on Vicki’s blog. I have a lot to learn from you, and then how to translate that into my own work in a more “traditional” public school setting…hmmm…

      I visited Portland a couple years ago and loved the town. Walked for hours and hours while my partner was attending an Ecological Society of America meeting there. Wished I would have known about you then. It would have been great to stop by.

      BTW, loved Pok Pok. You are lucky to have that place in town, IMHO.

    • It is a work in progress, but it feels good to have this routine. Routines have been hard to create. I’ve felt off my stride, but now am (finally) starting to get it back.

      Love your work on Math that you are sharing through Math Mondays. There is such deep learning happening.

  3. As Mary Lee said, wow. I have to spend some time with this. You have done what I want to do. I love the power of Kelly Gallagher’s work and you have taken it and adapted it so beautifully for 5th graders. It is a wonderful thing to have students for a whole day but I think you are finding your groove here with a powerful teaching partner.
    Thank you so much for this Steve. I’m inspired!

    • Thank you so much for reading this and leaving a comment, Julieanne. I have really enjoyed reading about your work with technology to help the kids collaborate and think together. Reading your posts is one reason that I’m thinking along those lines, too. Many thanks to you for sharing your work.

  4. Steve,
    Thanks for sharing this journey of your routines. So much fun play for students. You have outlined a very durable framework that provides structure for students to grow together without being so constraining that students are not responding with “Is this graded?” “How many sentences do I need to write?”

    Simply brilliant! (And yes, on collaboration with Heath – Isn’t it great to also be able to have grand conversations with our colleagues?)

    • Fran,
      I have enjoyed seeing the work that you are doing in trainings. I would LOVE to participate in one of your workshops where you have the teachers doing the thinking work that they will ask students to do. That is so powerful, as I found out when Heath and I tried it on our own. I am very lucky to have him as a colleague. He and I think enough alike to share similar goals for the kind of thinking we want students to do and we are different enough that I can learn A LOT from him. Very cool stuff.

  5. Thanks for sharing this post. It’s great how you developed the idea from Kelly Gallagher’s and adapted it to your needs. I also left traditional classroom teaching and teach in 45 minute blocks now – I will definitely give it a try. I particularly like the idea of spending a whole week reading the same text on different levels.

    • Oops, Alex! I’m so sorry to have missed your comment. Thank you so much for commenting on the post. Have you worked with Gallagher’s work? I love the idea, but thought it might be interesting to imagine it a bit differently for fifth grade. What seems key about the re-reading is that it NOT be drudgery; you know, something you have to do because the teacher told you so. I think the conversation on Friday has helped give a purpose to the re-readings. And the fact that that conversation is in a fishbowl seems to lend a kind of “gravity” to the process, too, one that the kids really enjoy. Of course, we party a bit afterwards, which also creates a sense of specialness. Still tweaking it and working with it, and I expected to move away from the fishbowl more quickly, but being able to continue the conversation online via an online learning system we use has caused me to carry the fishbowl part of the process on just a bit longer than I thought… Interesting.

      Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to comment. I am so sorry that it took me so long to get back in touch with you.

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