Conversation: Why Talking with Young Adolescents is Vital!

Walk the Walk about Talking the Talk!

By: Dru Tomlin

Conversation is something that we often take for granted—like air. It swirls around us. We breathe it in. We listen to it as it bends and curves. Our ears hear it. However, even though it is as critical as the air we breathe, we often aren't really listening. By its very definition and etymology, conversation gives us life and purpose—because according to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an "exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas." And if we look at the etymology of the word, it's even more telling. It derives from the Latin "convertere," which means "to turn around."

Why are the definition and origin of "conversation" so important to middle level education, in particular? They are vital for a couple of key reasons. First, young adolescents are trying to achieve in multiple areas, and one of those areas is the social-emotional one. That's why our students need conversational practice (yes, we're talking about practice) so they can understand what it means to share and "exchange" ideas that may result in a change or "turn" in opinion. Too often, though, the discussions they hear and witness in their communities, on their televisions, in the hallways, etc., aren't civil, balanced, collaborative conversations during which both parties learn something from each other. Instead, they witness power struggles during which each person tries to win the talking war so their opinion is victorious and the other opinion is silenced or relegated to the shadows. How can we create and promote a positive climate and culture in our schools if that is how they see, experience, and do conversation? How can we implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention System (PBIS), if language and conversation are used to divide and conquer instead of to bring together?

The answer goes back to modeling and practice. Teachers and staff need to be sure that they are demonstrating effective conversational strategies so students can hear and see how it's done. Verbal and nonverbal cues. Turn-taking. Summarizing. Body language. Politely disagreeing. Affirming. We are the head cooks in the conversational kitchen, and we should be using those dialogue ingredients liberally for ourselves and for our students. We are the models of conversation. In fact, school may be the only place that gives them strong examples of civil discourse and talk. In addition to modeling, it's about time. Thus, we need to provide opportunities for students to talk with each other in structured and unstructured times—and with our support along the way. We need to ensure that time is afforded in lesson plans for students to converse with each other, and not just at the end of the class (in order to fill up time or because they've earned it). Rather, we should see conversation as integral to teaching and learning in the middle grades. Young adolescents are learning the subtle and not-so subtle nuances of language now. We can't wait until later.

And conversation is also critical for the middle grades because that's how we create and maintain relationships with the young adolescents we serve. Whether it's through homeroom or advisory or another less-structured time in the school day, we need to just talk to kids. We need to ask them good, caring questions about their lives—and then hush. Let them talk. Let them share. Stop talking at your students and start conversing. To see where such a conversation could take me, I recorded an interview with my own seventh grader, Parker, and his fourth grade brother, Holden, for your listening pleasure. I asked them questions about early adolescence, school, and their challenges and triumphs—and Parker asked me questions, as well. Get your ears ready, check out the conversation, and enjoy the totally appropriate middle school ending! And to be 110% clear, my sons and I talk all the time, so please don't think this interview is an isolated occurrence!

So let's devote time to conversation in the critical middle grades and explore an exchange of ideas with our students. What could we all learn? What could we all unlearn?

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19 comments on article "Conversation: Why Talking with Young Adolescents is Vital!"

I agree talking with your students is very important! I like how you stated that communicating with students helps them develop in the socio-emotional development. Conversation also helps students moral and can help create a positive learning environment. I also agree that these conversations help model positive speaking.

4/19/2017 7:01 AM

I think that it is pretty amazing just how much conversation is taken for granted. Practicing conversational skills is so vital for students, especially at such a crucial developmentally challenging time in their lives.

4/26/2017 3:04 PM

Sometimes teachers can get caught up in teaching the curriculum and lose focus in the overall impact of our students. Conversation needs to be more incorporated into our lessons. Not every child is getting that conversation that they need at home. That's why its important to make sure it happens in our schools which also helps students develop better language skills and vocabulary.

4/30/2017 11:45 AM

I think in today's texting society conversation skills have been lost. We have been reduced to texting lingo and emoji's to communicate. I think having real conversations is all too important and not just over material. Conversations are a great way to get to know your students and to create a bond that will promote healthy learning environments.

5/15/2017 12:03 AM

I really appreciated the fact that this entry was about a topic that is not part of the formal curriculum. Conversation in an integral part of our society, and to truly thrive in that society our students need to be able to use the art of conversation. I would even go as far to argue that conversation and other social skills might be the most important skill students learn through their middle school years. Conversation is used every day. Additionally, I would agree with the fact that students are missing these vital skills due to the technological world they are growing up in. And not only that, but they are exposed to such combative conversations throughout the popular media, when did it go out of fashion to agree to disagree? I hope I can bring back the art of meaningful conversation to my classroom.

5/15/2017 4:33 PM

Awesome! Just what we need - to hear from an adolescent. Thanks to you and your sons for this! Belinda

6/25/2017 10:51 AM

Talking to students is a vital way to not only communicate, but also a way to better know the students. It is integral in our world. Talking is an important skill that will be used for the rest of their lives. We must be able to talk to our young adolescents!

11/21/2017 7:19 PM

I do agree talking with students is a great way to get to know them. I also like the point made of modeling good conversation with students, especially in a world where a lot of conversation takes place behind a screen.

12/5/2017 6:50 PM

Practicing how to have a good conversation is something I had never even thought of. It makes perfect sense though that we would have to model this with our students because that is how they learn best. It's not just about staging debates, it's about how they interact with people on a daily basis.

12/5/2017 7:22 PM

I think this is such an important idea. Middle grades is the time when students are so focused on social aspects of their lives so why are we not teaching them about it? One of the previous comments mentioned how texting has taking over communication and that could be very hurtful to our students' development. Taking time to focus on how to communicate and incorporating it into our lessons is such a cool idea. Definitely will use this!

12/9/2017 10:45 AM

This was an awesome post to read. Like others, I didn't really think we had to teach students how to have conversations. However, I see now that is an essential part of their social lives, so why not teach them how to be great conversationalists? Instead of telling students to be quiet, why don't we let them speak!? There insights are just as good as mine and conversation is a healthy part of our lives. This is definitely something I will use in my own classroom!

12/9/2017 12:22 PM

This was an awesome post to read. Like others, I didn't really think we had to teach students how to have conversations. However, I see now that it is an essential part of their social lives, so why not teach them how to be great conversationalists? Instead of telling students to be quiet, why don't we let them speak!? Their insights are just as good as mine and conversation is a healthy part of our lives. This is definitely something I will use in my own classroom!

12/9/2017 12:22 PM

It is truly mind-blowing to me that conversation is taken for granted. Conversation is so vital to our middle grades students because I believe that is the key to making strong relationships with our students! Without conversation, how do you create a trusting relationship with your students that will enhance their learning experience? Students at this age are developmentally searching for meaning out of their every day lives and are also searching for those meaningful conversations to happen with trusted adults. We are strategically placed in such a great spot to make a difference in the lives of our students!

4/27/2018 11:45 PM

This was an extremely interesting post to read. I agree that conversation is a crucial aspect to education in the middle years, and it is a great way to build and maintain relationships with students. While we may not realize it, a little conversation we have with our students will likely go a long way for them. I especially liked the point on modeling good conversation for students. If students see us using professionalism within conversations then it is likely they will begin to do the same. Providing conversation time is something I will definitely use in my own classroom.

4/29/2018 11:37 AM

Conversation is extremely important when building relationships with your students. I think it builds a trust with your students in the classroom. Not only is it important to allow conversations between you and the students but conversations between the students as well. It is important to model that good conversational behavior so students see the mutual respect.

4/29/2018 12:01 PM

This post talks about creating and having conversations with students; this concept may seem so simple, but it's something that is so important to remember as a middle school teacher. The start of a conversation could be the start of a positive relationship with your students that is built upon mutual respect and trust. I'm glad this topic was addressed because it is one aspect we as educators may talk for granted.

10/31/2018 9:39 AM

I really enjoyed this blog post! I think it is very important to have conversations with middle school aged kids because a lot of students don't know how to have proper conversations with others. I think as teachers we should model this, like you mentioned in your post.

12/8/2018 8:20 PM

i never really thought that students would need practice how to have a appropriate conversation with one another. That the conversations between students should be positive and build respect and trust. I really enjoyed reading this because it made me think of ways to incorporate conversations in my class that will develop respect for one another.

12/9/2018 12:53 PM

Before reading this I never thought about how much conversation plays a role in Middle Grades students. I will be sure to keep in mind how to appropriately model conversations to help my students see how a respectful conversation should be done. It's also very important to remember that students want positive relationships with their teacher, to help this I will be sure to ask my students caring questions about their lives.

12/9/2018 7:09 PM

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