Long-term Investment in Accountable Student Talk Paying Dividends in Local District

Over forty percent of Santa Cruz County’s students speak languages other than English at home.  The CA English Learner Roadmap lays out guiding principles to support educators in ensuring that all English learners attain high levels of English proficiency, mastery of grade-level standards, and opportunities to develop proficiency in multiple languages. This article focuses on work at Live Oak Elementary School District that aligns to the EL Roadmap Principles. The district was selected in 2018 as a California Exemplary School District and Live Oak Elementary School as a California Distinguished School.

three children sitting on floor with booksA key component of EL Roadmap Principle Two: Intellectual Quality of Instruction and Meaningful Access is ensuring that all students are actively engaged in discussing what they are learning. This focus on academic discourse (student discussion) has been ongoing for the district for over five years, with the goal of students engaging in accountable student talk for at least 50% of class time.  Victoria Edgell, Literacy Coach at Live Oak Elementary observed,  “We believed it came first because the parts of it (communicating ideas, notions of self, civic development) are parts of social interactions that are essential to learning and the development of self.  And, in the end, if I can’t hear what a student is thinking, I can’t interact with those thoughts. And if students can’t express their thinking verbally, they are denied access to conversations that impact them.”

Julie Curley, a fourth grade teacher at Green Acres Elementary commented, “Accountable Talk has been an area that we have focused on in our professional learning and development over the past few years. It has been a work in progress, with many hours on the topic as a school site, district professional development, and one-on-one work with our site coaches. I have grown in my understanding of the positive impact of Accountable Talk through all of these opportunities. I also had the opportunity to be a site mentor two years ago, where our focus for our professional learning that year was based on Accountable Talk. Through modeling and researching, my understanding also grew. Another positive way that we’ve learned about Accountable Talk is being able to observe other teachers in action!”

A recent observation of Ms. Curley’s class, over half of whom are English Learners, provides a concrete example of the impact of this ongoing professional learning. Cued by their teacher, students progressed through a series of conversations in different configurations on the topics of decimals and fractions.

The math learning began with students working independently on a few warm-up problems on individual erasable work mats.  Then, students moved efficiently into new seats to be able to work with their math partners.  “Greet your partner,” said the teacher, and students did, before proceeding to talk about the first warm-up problem in response to the teacher’s prompt of, “Talk with your partner.  What do you know about these numbers, and what was your strategy for solving the problem?”  In one triad of students, one student explained her thinking, and her partner added on by saying, “Also,…” and then asked the third student, “What do you think?”

After a few minutes of discussion time, the teacher explained a little more about the problem to the class, before prompting students to discuss with partners the next warm-up problem. Now, in another part of the room, a student listened and watched as his partner explained his solution using his work on the mat, then exclaimed, “I did it wrong, I just noticed! I forgot the five!”

After a quick stretch break, the students reviewed math vocabulary with their partners, discussing one word at a time. The teacher rang a bell briefly between words and partners expertly switched roles in leading the discussion about the next word.

Next, the class engaged in a Number Talk, where partners teamed up with another set of partners to answer the question, “Which of these numbers doesn’t belong?”  The class used a familiar routine for sharing their group’s solution with the whole class, in which any group member might be responsible for sharing the group’s answer.

The last discussion about math for the day was with students’ regular table partner, with a focus on using one of the vocabulary words to explain how they would solve a problem.  Finally, it was time for individual work in the math book, and by now students were primed for success, having had ample practice with the content and the vocabulary.

This snapshot of instruction where students engage in academic discussion for much of class is common throughout Live Oak district’s three elementary schools. Supporting this kind of instruction, is a focused system of professional learning, a key component of EL Roadmap Principle 3, which focuses on System Conditions that Support Effectiveness.

Nancy Krueger talked a little about how Live Oak district moved  their vision of accountable student talk to a reality of most teachers implementing Accountable Talk strategies with students across the content areas. “Our district has a strong component of professional learning. In the first year we introduced Accountable Talk in all of our monthly district professional learning sessions. In the second year our district’s monthly professional learning sessions were all focused on Accountable Talk.  Then we did 2 years of Instructional Rounds with a focus on Accountable Talk.”

The sites’ literacy coaches work together with district leaders as well as designated classroom teachers at each site to plan the common professional learning that all sites participate in. Currently, teachers collaborate twice a month in professional learning sessions in order to learn about best practices, reflect on instruction, decide how instruction needs to be adjusted to more effectively meet students’ needs, and plan this instruction.

Live Oak has used other research-based approaches to deepening and supporting teacher learning, including Lesson Study and working with an instructional coach in coaching cycles.  Every Live Oak elementary teacher participates in 2 coaching cycles per year, which consist of 6-8 weeks each, and involve a coach being in a teacher’s classroom twice a week.  Paid reflection time for the teacher and coach rounded out the coaching cycle for the first several years, and now the reflection time has been built into the professional learning sessions.

Ultimately, data shows that what Live Oak has in place to improve student learning is showing results. The district’s scores on state English Language Arts and mathematics assessments show that their ELs outperform state ELs.  A project that started out as a series of conversations within the district about how to best improve student learning transformed into a concrete, continually developing plan to develop and support teachers’ skills in a high leverage area of instruction. The results have been changes in what happens in classrooms every day that on the whole have led to increased student learning.

In 2018, the California Department of Education recognized Live Oak Elementary as a Distinguished School and Live Oak School District as an Exemplary School District. The 2018 California Distinguished Schools Program recognized California elementary schools that have made exceptional gains in implementing academic content and performance standards adopted by the State Board of Education. According to State Superintendent Tom Torklakson, “Every day at these schools, teachers, administrators and classified employees, working with parents, apply their dedication, creativity, and talents toward providing a great education for all their students.”