8 Habits of Dialogical Teachers



“A dialogical classroom is one in which literacy is used to immerse teacher and students in an ongoing reflective conversation with the texts of their lives.” -Bob Fecho

Because a dialogical classroom is #goals. Dialogical, Dialogic, Dialogue: Conversation.

  1. Answer each question with a question.
  2. Read lots and lots of theory. Because there is nothing more practical than good theory*. Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Csikszentmihayl, Rosenblatt, Dewey, etc., etc.
  3. Read lots of other books too.
  4. Structure class activities to allow for plenty of discussion and talking.  You know that the sound of students talking about ideas is the sound of learning.
  5. Teach students how to question validity and sources behind texts. Because you are teaching critical thinking through questioning, like a boss.
  6. Teach students to question pretty much everything.
  7. Have an essential question. The kind that can’t be answered in a day. You don’t already know the answer to this question, either.
  8. Don’t just teach one way of doing things. Dialogue with students on what works best for them & try different ways.
*Quote Attribution: Bob Fecho. 

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art: My Week with Lincoln Center Education & Teachers College, Columbia University

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art

I cannot even begin to unpack all the things I learned in my week with Lincoln Center Education—my first week this summer in the MA English Education program at Teachers College. Each day after class I would go home to the small apartment I rented with a few other girls from the program, and just collapse from mental exhaustion. To write about everything I learned would take a novel-like production! So, instead I just want to touch on a few big ideas that I took away from the brilliant program and teachers they have there at LCE: engaging with ideas of a work of art, line of inquiry, questioning, some activities, and the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking. Really, I’m just glossing over the information, but talking about even the basic idea of these concepts allows me to remember, and might spark someone else’s interest and possible investigation of these truly brilliant instructional approaches.

With classes at Juilliard, the Met, Central Park, and of course historic Teachers College, there was no shortage of wonder. My grad school classmates & I saw an unforgettable performance by Urban Bush Women, and closely examined the music of Coltrane, some classical sculpture, modern painting, and Mid-Eastern architecture. LCE partners with schools and educators so that students can have the kind of experiences and “encounters with art” that we were able to have. Of course, none of our students will go into these encounters having actually studied art, literary, and pedagogy theory. Early on LCE realized that the encounters with art were not having the kind of indelible impression on students, nor were they able to produce and sustain a depth of discussion that was needed or that an encounter with a work of art deserves. Their next move was to incorporate into the curriculum a series of lessons where students would engage with parts of the idea or ideas surrounding the work of art before they encountered it.

I wondered, how many times as English teachers do we just jump into concepts and ideas? Or jumping right into a work of art (text) without engaging students in any of the ideas that surround that particular piece? And, how much better would our instruction and student engagement be if we got students involved and interested in the ideas before hitting them with the key text?

Why This Approach?

To do understand this approach better as learners as well as teachers, we were led through some LCE workshops in which we engaged with ideas and concepts surrounding the work of art before, during, and after we actually encountered it. As I mentioned before, one of the effects of this was that by the time we came to the central work of art—painting, poem, essay, novel, music, dance, etc.— we were much more engaged and even excited to discuss and examine the ideas, artist’s choices and craft, and implications of the work of art. Discussions following the experience were also much richer, had greater depth, and not anything we will soon forget.

We also developed lasting knowledge and critical thinking because of our engagement with the central ideas. This is a huge plus, because engagement with these ideas can lead students to be more thoughtful people, more involved citizens, and lifelong learners.

Here’s an example: in a series of lessons we created, students would—through various activities—engage with the idea of borders and boundaries before their encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Making a Fist, in which physical and abstract borders play a central role. They had the opportunity to examine and develop critical thinking skills about borders— how they work in society and their personal relationship to borders. This experience can then refine and inform their future actions and thoughts as they engage with literal or abstract borders they encounter.

As an English teacher, this is what I’m after! Critical thinking and engaging with ideas to help students become active citizens and thoughtful people. Additionally, lessons that involve different modes of learning, activities, or art often appeal to a wider range of students and can be an entry into the ideas and work of art being studied.

How to Do It
Line of Inquiry
So what are the practicalities of accomplishing this? How do we plan lessons to this result? One essential element to lesson planning—the essential question— is not unfamiliar to most teachers, but LCE has a slightly different take on it. Called the “line of inquiry”, it is a question specific to a work of art, but that addresses ideas that can be examined outside of the context of that particular work. It spawns other questions that can be used on a more daily basis in class. For me, the biggest realization of using a line of inquiry (or essential question) is that the teacher should not have an overwhelming sense of the answer. This is good for a number of reasons, but primarily because it allows for student directed learning— authentic learning— and for students to have more ownership over what they are learning.

Here is an example of the line of inquiry—developed with a group of teachers in the LCE workshop—based on the poem mentioned above by Naomi Shihab Nye: How does Naomi Shihab Nye in “Making a Fist” use motifs of movement and location in time and space to explore the idea of borders?

A lot of time could be spent analyzing and discussing what makes a good line of inquiry, but for the sake of brevity, this and other good lines of inquiry are specific to a work of art, address writer’s craft and choices, doesn’t lead to a specific interpretation, and allows for students to arrive at the “So What” by themselves; all important things to consider when designing an essential question.

Importance of Questioning
When ready to move past the starting point of choosing a work of art and designing a line of inquiry, consider the instructional strategies you use in encountering the work and working with the line of inquiry. Perhaps the most crucial strategy that I learned about in greater depth with LCE and at Teachers College, was questioning— it’s absolutely vital! Teachers should use questioning in every capacity: as an instructional strategy, for discussion, and as an affective goal for your students to turn into critical thinkers by questioning what they see, read, and experience. Questioning and dialogue have an essential place in teaching. So, when examining a work of art, having a discussion, doing an activity, etc., use questions to help students notice, explore, and analyze a work of art.

Some Activities
Still on the practical side of things, I was introduced to some activities— maybe some teachers already use these— that are conducive to engaging with ideas and encountering works of art. There are of course many more activities that allow students to engage with ideas of a work of art, but these are a few of my favorites:
 Students in groups create a frozen scene that depicts a concept, idea, character, or anything else the teacher thinks is something that needs to be explored. Students are given time to figure out how they are going to embody that idea and why, after which they perform for a class (and hold that position) while others observe, ask questions, and analyze. It can be useful to first analyze as a class before asking the participants of the tableau what they did and why. Check out this video from Teaching Channel that shows this activity, along with a few other good ones, “Wall of Silence” and a small group discussion: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/increase-engagement-and-understanding

Teacher hangs pictures around the room that illustrate an idea, concept, etc.; could be abstract or more concrete visualizations of the idea. Students then walk around the room and take time at each picture to look, notice, and write down something that stands out to them about that picture. They write this on a sticky note or a piece of paper/poster hanging next to the picture. Allow students the chance to view most or all of the pictures before beginning a discussion about what they noticed. Often students will begin to connect the content of the individual pictures to a larger concept, but teachers can prompt students to do this as well with questions like, “What do these have in common?” The gallery walk is a great way for students to be introduced to ideas in a work of art before they encounter it; they can also start to think critically about those ideas.

Using a variety of mediums to make art that illustrates a central idea or concept is a great way for students to begin engaging in that idea and thinking critically about it. Students can create drawings with crayons, markers, pastels, scissors and paper, and more. After students are done creating is the time to begin questioning and examining what they created. If the teacher wants to take that a step further, changing the art by combining it in some way, for example a collage, then examining that can help students to come up with new observations or ways to think about the idea.


There are a variety of ways to do this, but the basic idea is that students share a sentence or two— either from a text or from their own writing in response to a work of art— and then share it out loud. It can be done “Quaker Meeting” style, where one person starts and everyone shares at the time that they feel like they want to, or going around in a circle, in small groups, etc. Doing this allows students to think about ideas and artist’s craft as they are entering discussion or preparing to encounter another work of art. Noticing commonalities or often repeated ideas or lines is a good place to begin discussion.

At The Core of LCE: The Capacities for Imaginative Thinking
Finally, when talking about Lincoln Center Education, I have to mention the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking, the core of LCE’s approach to aesthetic education. Each capacity, and the accompanying questions, help students approach and encounter a work of art with greater critical thinking, perception, and understanding. Using these capacities as I think about how to plan lessons where students transact with a work of art has been transformational to my teaching. See also a printable PDF of the capacities.
Thinking About . . .
I plan to think and write more about what I learned at LCE and in my first year at Teachers College. Specifically, questioning and the role it plays in learning and instruction. Also, imagination— as described by Maxine Greene, the founder of LCE— and the dynamic between student choice, empowerment, imagination, literature and other text. I am an English teacher after all, and the power of literature when seen through the lens of imagination and empowerment underlies just about everything we do in the Language Arts classroom and in aesthetic education.

How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.

teaching for creativity: demand calls for reversing the downward trend

I read a fascinating article this week that briefly discusses one of my favorite undercurrent topics in education: creativity.

The article in Forbes, “How Kids Lose Their Creativity As They Age (And How to Prevent It)” points out that creativity scores, measured yearly since the 1950’s by what is called the Torrance Test, have been dropping in American children since the 1990’s. It was this bit of evidence that initially pulled me in; while dropping test scores in any area aren’t exactly fresh news, it’s that this article’s subtexts link this sad fact strongly to the nature of the workplace. A modern workplace that is constantly changing, and greatly values creativity and innovation– as seen in countless successful companies and organizations.

Which leads me to ask . . . Is creativity rising among  the valued workplace skills, even as evidence shows creativity is falling among American children? This Forbes article would have you believe that it is, and that we need to do something about it.

While praising teachers and offering preventative measures against creativity loss, the Forbes article also makes some interesting claims: that the “school factory system”, “teaching to the test”, and teaching essentially with one goal or to form one type of student is destructive when it comes to creativity. This line of thinking reminds me of some of the things that one of my education heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, has been saying for a while now:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” (Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity“, TED February 2006.)

On the plus side, by acknowledging multiple intelligences and cultivating creativity like Sir Ken Robinson promotes, we are better able to engage students in learning. I’ve found this to be true for my students on both ends of the spectrum–the advanced and the remedial. So how to do this? The recommendations that the Forbes article makes aren’t anything new, but rather a compilation of ideas and research that have been developed before. For example, two of the five recommendations:

  • Teach kids to challenge assumptions instead of accepting things as is (also a basic concept of the critical literacy theory)
  • Teach that mistakes are not evil and should not be feared (an idea central to the concept of the growth mindset and also involved in the idea of “grit” and how that helps children succeed)

It’s worthwhile to think about creativity and education, especially in light of the modern workplace and culture they are a part of. A final quote from the Forbes article, “creativity has become the currency of success for us all” makes me think that now is a particularly good time to think how we as teachers can help students develop their own unique type of intelligence and creativity to prepare them for careers and life.


P.S. If you haven’t watched SKR’s TED talks, you need to. Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/1r9yhvV.