Last year, as a Developmental Designs coach,
I observed St. Louis Park (MN) Junior High seventh grade social studies
teacher Rebecca Hinkle as she introduced and began to use the
participation protocol Kitchen Table Talk in her classroom. She implemented it
for a discussion of the relationship between the Dakota tribe of Native
Americans and the U.S. government. Rebecca had used other techniques for
managing whole-group conversations, including hand-raising and partner shares;
this was her first time using Kitchen Table Talk.

Freedom and responsibility
Kitchen Table Talk allows students freedom
and discretion in conversation, and it requires commensurate self-management.
The teacher doesn’t call on students to speak; she or he prompts the group with
a question or topic, and the students take it from there.

Rebecca used the signal for silence, greeted
her students, and asked them a question: “What are some characteristics of a
conversation at the kitchen table? Raise your hand, and wait until I call on
you to respond.” Students mentioned asking questions; talking about an event that’s
going to happen; commenting on the food; and listening to people share.

A personal story
Rebecca then told a personal story, about
meeting her fiancĂ©’s family for the first time and sharing a meal with them.
She described their way of talking at the table. She had trouble keeping up,
because multiple people were speaking at once across the table, spontaneously introducing
new topics and raising their voices to various levels.

Rebecca drove home thinking they were rude
not respecting what each other had to say. Later, she realized that the family
wasn’t behaving rudely; they were talking informally, enthusiastically, and
everyone wanted to be heard. She said that the class’ Kitchen Table Talk would require
extra care to make sure everyone was heard.

With her story, Rebecca had primed the
students. She engaged them right away, by telling her own story about what it
was like to be part of a “kitchen table” discussion. Rebecca explained what
their classroom’s Kitchen Table Talk would look like and used the following chart
to teach her expectations:

Kitchen Table Talk

  • spontaneous conversation and blurting are
  • teacher asks question(s) and students
    respond in a free-flowing manner
  • everyone avoids talking over each other
  • speakers join the conversation gracefully
    and respectfully

They modeled and practiced Kitchen Table
Talk, using a sample question. Then Rebecca declared the group ready to use it
in a ten-minute conversation. She showed a second chart that showed the content-based
topic for their discussion. Rebecca had laid the foundation for a successful
whole-group conversation. The structure required lots of self-control and
awareness of others in the group. She modeled Kitchen Table Talk, went over written
expectations, asked them to practice, and gave them a time limit ahead of time.
A time limit helps students maintain their engagement even when the experience
is challenging. Without it, they may feel “This is hopeless. I can’t sit here and
keep myself in check for the rest of this class!” But almost everyone can say, “I
can hang in there for ten minutes.”

A good beginning
At first, out of habit, students raised their
hands, and Rebecca reminded them that Kitchen Table Talk did not include hand-raising.
Soon, students began chiming in, being careful not to talk over each other.
Several points were made and opinions articulated, and several respectful
disagreements were expressed. At one point, a student who had been listening
carefully but had not spoken said, “I think we need to hear more voices.” I wondered
if she would have spoken up in the raise-your-hand-and-I’ll-call-on-you format.

There were a couple of times when students
started speaking at the same time. This was fixed without teacher intervention:
one or both stopped the minute they realized they weren’t “merging gracefully” and
deferred with a gesture to the other to proceed. Rebecca stayed out of the
conversation for the most part. A couple of times, to keep things moving, she
restated the question or asked a student to say more.

High engagement
Although not everyone spoke during the
discussion, most students seemed engaged, listening, nodding in agreement or
disagreement and looking thoughtful. Those who participated seemed comfortable with
the kitchen table format, and Rebecca plans to find ways to increase the number
of students whose voices are heard in the future. Perhaps with more practice,
students will feel more comfortable talking in a way that allows for “blurting.”

Rebecca announced that the ten minutes had
passed, and she reverted to requiring hand-raising. She asked, “How many would like to use
this way of discussing again?” Almost all of the students’ hands shot up. She
then asked, “What did you like about the discussion?” Responses included:

“We were allowed to say our ideas.”
“We didn’t have to raise hands.”
“We weren’t forced to wait until called
“We were trusted.”
“There was just enough time to get a point

Final thoughts
It was wonderful to see students talking
in a free-flowing way that was both respectful and academically-focused. Their
reflections showed their earnest participation and thoughtfulness.

Kandace Logan is an Instructional Leader
for the Minneapolis Public Schools.