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What is eliciting and interpreting student thinking?

Teachers pose questions or tasks that provoke or allow students to share their thinking about specific academic content in order to evaluate student understanding, guide instructional decisions, and surface ideas that will benefit other students. To do this effectively, a teacher draws out a student’s thinking through carefully-chosen questions and tasks and considers and checks alternative interpretations of the student’s ideas and methods.

How can eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking in English language arts advance justice?

Language and culture are mutually constitutive, and texts are viewed through cultural lenses. This means that differences in cultural and linguistic backgrounds can present invisible obstacles to teachers as they try to make sense of students’ ideas in discussion and writing. In classrooms where teachers do not share the background or cultural contexts of their students, their interpretations and use of language may diverge significantly. Students’ contrasting ideas may be misinterpreted as illogical or improper where they draw on different funds of knowledge and linguistic conventions. Given the current composition of the teaching force in the United States, students of color and students living in poverty are particularly likely to be misunderstood by their teachers or to have their ideas overlooked, misinterpreted, or dismissed. In order to cultivate an intellectually rich and culturally sustaining classroom, English language arts teachers must strive to understand language and texts from their students’ perspectives, which requires attentively listening to students and maintaining a genuine curiosity about their ideas, a stance that can be developed through the practice of eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking.

What is challenging about learning this practice?

One common novice pattern of practice is to skip the cycle of listening and posing additional questions that should occur between asking a question and drawing conclusions about the student’s response. A novice may mistakenly believe they understand a student’s comment or question and proceed without recognizing or responding to the actual insight or uncertainty that the student has expressed. Listening carefully to students and developing responsive follow-up questions in the moment can be difficult for novice teachers, who are not yet accustomed to managing the complexity of engaging one-on-one with students while also attending to the rest of the classroom environment. Additionally, novice teachers are often unsure about how to handle students’ divergent ideas about a text, discussion topic, or principle of communication. This can result in teachers imposing their own interpretations, ideas, and cultural norms on students, foreclosing students’ opportunities to make their own sense of the material, to clarify points of confusion, or to have an authentic voice in the classroom community. The unit of teacher education instruction that follows is designed to support novice teachers in developing a stance of curiosity about students’ ideas, as well as in developing the skills necessary to surface and probe those ideas so that they may become the basis for ongoing, responsive instruction.

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