The Power of Conversation – from Dominican Middle Schoolers in the Bronx

“My kids won’t stay on topic.”

“My students can’t control themselves.”

“My students won’t participate.”

“My students won’t interact with kids they don’t like.”

Is it worth it to push through all of these “problems” and facilitate conversations?


We all have pet peeves, and one of mine is the phrase “My students can’t do that.” UGH!  It literally takes everything I can do not to yell, “NO, FRIEND (that’s my nice version). It’s YOU.”

I have had the pleasure of working through EL Saber Enterprises at I.S.232 Middle School in the Bronx, NY (Cardi B’s middle school, for those who care :)).  We are working primarily with the ESL and Bilingual kids at this middle school.

I loved my time with these students!

One of the beautiful initiatives that Mrs. Resto, the Principal, has put into place is accountable talk.

So I want you to get the full picture here:

  • A classroom full of students from the Dominican Republic who have been in the country less than 3 years,
  • Teachers teaching grade level material in English, but able to clarify in Spanish if needed,
  • An intentional push for higher level, rigorous questions to be asked in the classroom,
  • A neighborhood set in generational poverty.

The question is posed: How has learning about the role of a salesman influenced how you feel about Willie in The Death of a Salesman?

Teacher: Think about this question.  (10 seconds) Now turn to your shoulder partner and discuss your answer and respond to your partner. Person with the longest hair goes first.

(Students discuss – some in English and some in Spanish, but all talking about the question.)

Teacher: Who would like to share? (Students almost come out of their seats trying to answer the question.) Jose?

Jose: Learning about the role of a salesman makes me understand why Willie is so negative, so I feel more sorry for him.

Teacher: Oh, I like that you have a feeling towards him. Who can add to that? Ana?

Ana: I agree with what Jose said, but I will also add that I think Willie works really hard and is told no a lot.

Teacher: Good observation, Ana, but how does that make you feel about Willie?

Ana: I feel like I understand why Willy is rude because I don’t like someone to tell me no.

Teacher: Excellent job being empathetic!  You are understanding how Willie feels!  Who would like to add to that? Manuel?

Manuel: I like what Ana said, but I agree with Jose that I feel sorry for Willie. I feel sorry because he has so much pressure.


I was blown away. These students were listening and responding, thinking deeply about the content, and forming their own opinions – and it all started with conversation.

So I got to thinking about the importance of conversation.  To answer my question posed above, YES! IT IS ABSOLUTELY worth the time and effort it takes to have these conversations.  But if middle school students (God bless them) from another country in a high poverty area can use accountable talk to have academic conversations, then there is no reason to say that anyone can’t do it.

We just have to teach them.

Briefly, here’s 4 ways:

  • Use sentence frames. Teach them the words to use and when to use them.
  • Model. Model. Because the teacher modeled the conversation, and then uses the accountable talk stems in whole group, the students learned how to use those stems in small groups – and we saw this in EVERY CLASS.
  • Value their voice – This theme keeps coming up, but if the students don’t feel like their thoughts and opinions are important, they have no reason to speak them. Applaud those who are brave enough to share their voice. Every time. Facilitate the class’s applause. Kids need to learn how to value others’ as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions that require the students to a) think, and b) process through with their partner or group. If we ask easy questions, the students don’t have anything to discuss!

Happy Conversating!

To chat further about this topic or learn about how we can partner up, let me know who you are!




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