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Book Review: Hands Down, Speak Out – Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math K-5

In this article, Vivian Chen, Literacy Partners senior staff developer, gives us a thorough book review. 

Getting students to lead their own meaningful conversations has always been a challenge, but it might seem impossible in virtual spaces. The book, Hands Down, Speak Out by Kassia Wedekin and Christy Thompson has come out at just the right time. The authors offer practical strategies to help teachers with the complex work of using a simple, but powerful tool: Hands-Down Conversations.

Kassia and Christy define Hands-Down Conversations as “conversations that flow among students without the use of hand-raising, and in which the teacher is not the primary speaker.” Of course, this definition doesn’t capture the important work that’s accomplished with this tool.

These questions drive the strategies outlined in the book:

  • How can we create communities where talk is a vehicle for students to build identities as readers, writers, and mathematicians?
  • How do we create talk communities accessible to everyone, those whose voices have traditionally been left out of classroom discourse?
  • How can we make space for students’ ideas to lead the conversation and meet our instructional goals?
  • How can we value the interconnected roles of speaker and listener?
  • How can we, as teachers, facilitate classroom conversations without taking over the thinking? (p.2)

Kassia and Christy begin their book with the why behind Hands Down Conversations and the nuts and bolts of what this structure is and how to facilitate it:

Book Review: Hands Down, Speak Out - Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math K-5Section I: A Brief Introduction to Hands-Down Conversations, the Authors, and Coconuts

Chapter 1: Hands-Down Conversations: The Why

Chapter 2: Becoming a Hands-Down Teacher

Chapter 3: Facilitating the Hands-Down Conversation

At the beginning, the authors lay out the basic rules of a Hands-Down Conversation:

  1. No hands. Listen for the space to slide your voice into the conversation.
  2. Once voice at a time (more or less)!
  3. Listen closely to everyone’s ideas. (p.3)

As teachers, we know those basic rules are actually pretty challenging to accomplish and the rest of the book is packed full of strategies to do just that. I appreciated how Christy and Kassia lay out the groundwork by giving compelling reasons for de-centering ourselves as teachers and centering students’ voices. They then give concrete ideas for becoming listeners of our students and getting started in this work.

In the next section of the book, Christy and Kassia show us how to teach students specific skills around dialogue using micro-lessons that progress in complexity.

Section II: Orienting Students to Dialogue: The Micro-lessons

Chapter 1: Jumping In

Chapter 2: Talking About Our Ideas

Chapter 3: Listening and Linking Ideas

Chapter 4: Growing Ideas Together

For workshop teachers, the structure of the micro-lesson will look familiar. Each lesson starts with a During the Dialogue Micro-lesson or the “what, why, how” section. The teacher names one skill or tool the students can use, why it’s important, and then gives step-by-step instructions on using the skill or tool. Students can put it to use right away in the During the Conversation part of the lesson. The lesson then ends with an After the Conversation section, during which time, the teacher can reinforce the focus of the lesson of the day and students can reflect on their growth. This section was something I dreamed of having when in the classroom. It addresses so many of those issues we come across time and again when leading conversations with students.

When you find yourself asking, “What do I do when…?” chances are there’s a lesson in the section that answers the question. And if there isn’t, there are instructions for creating your own micro-lesson.

The final section of the book lays out the steps in planning for three types of conversations that can develop meaning-making across content areas:

Section III: Exploring the Crossover: Conversations in Literacy and Math Classrooms

Chapter 1: Nurturing Disagreement

Chapter 2: Developing Theories Together

Chapter 3: Engaging with the World

Kassia and Christy clearly explain how to plan these conversations alongside real examples, making this deep and powerful work feel much more accessible. As they state from the beginning, these are the types of conversations that go beyond the four walls of the classroom; these are conversations that will help students be engaged citizens and critical thinkers.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to all of the practical ideas laid out in the first three sections, the appendix has a helpful chart with common issues you might notice and which lesson to try. It also has a resource for recording your observations and a list of topics to get started. Also, embedded throughout the text are connections to social justice and equity — the real reasons to engage in this work.

In today’s world where we see lots of divisiveness, this book addresses essential skills our students need to be the kind of citizens who can collaborate and communicate in ways that will help make our communities be better for all.

I hope you will find as much inspiration and practical guidance in it as I did. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

If you enjoyed this book review, you might also enjoy reading these articles:

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