Those of a certain age may remember a TV show called the Gemini Man starring Ben Murphy out of Alias Smith and Jones (I realize that I’ve lost as least half of the twelve people who regularly read my blog. It’s a risk but I’m taking it.) It was about a character called Sam Casey who, after an accident, could become invisible for only fifteen minutes a day. He had a watch which he could switch on and it would countdown as he got into scrapes and japes. It was axed after one series, rightly so, but I enjoyed it.
I was reminded of the Gemini Man recently while reading some blog posts on classroom Teacher Talk. I’ve never been a fan of limiting Teacher Talk as a rule, although I understand that we need to get students actively learning as soon as possible. However, I don’t buy the 20/80 rule or any stipulation that teachers should never lecture. Sorry. Sometimes I need to. Sometimes I talk for a whole lesson about the novel we are about to read. Sometimes I lead a whole class discussion on a topic which might arise out of nothing. Okay, that’s not all teacher talk but I do lead the talk and talk more than anyone in the room.
For example, when I introduce The Catcher in the Rye, I have a standard talk which starts at the end of the Second World War and travels all the way up to the day I got knocked down by a car when I was fourteen. (On the day John Lennon died, incidentally. See the connection?) There are times when we need to lecture, times when we must. Not always though. That would be nuts. But limiting Teacher Talk is really problematic for many reasons.
For about three days this week I tried to be The Gemini Man of Teacher Talk. For a couple of lessons with each of my classes I limited myself to fifteen minutes talk out of fifty five, with a countdown on my phone which I stopped whenever I stopped talking. I found it very difficult. Younger students, especially, always wanted to ask questions. Sometimes I refused to answer them. We had agreed that they would consult peers before the teacher, apart from those moments when I announced I was now ‘live’. There were times when the class was descending into bedlam. I’m too much of a control freak to let that happen.
I quickly realised that if any change in strategy like this was to work then we all need to be trained in how to do it well. I need to practice keeping my mouth shut at times and working with the students as to why that is happening. More importantly, students need to develop the skills of effective peer assessment. I’m never convinced that this works for all children. We are very happy to publicise our successes with peer assessment but how many kids really get nothing from it? I’ve been working on Ron Berger’s critique techniques, where students comment constructively on each others work (Be kind, Be specific, be helpful), but I’m clearly not there yet. My students are not comfortable working without me as a safety net, but we’ll stick at it.
I never found out what would happen if The Gemini Man’s fifteen minutes ran out. It never happened. However, if there is to be any value in limiting Teacher Talk then we need to work on ensuring that we have a rigorous assessment of the work the students are doing. Talk is far too important a skill to be left to chance. The Gemini Man only had fifteen minutes so he had to use them wisely. We have more but they are far more important.