An Elementary Teacher on Facilitating Student Discourse

February 7, 2023

Hope Harrod & LeVar Jenkins

5th Grade Teacher & Principal at Burroughs Elementary School, District of Columbia Public Schools

This profile is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement.

Executive Summary

At a school that prioritizes student discourse, a 5th grade teacher plans for and leads high-level text-based discourse by:

  • Using challenging and compelling standards-aligned texts;
  • Identifying a clear student goal for reading, points of “productive struggle,” and scaffolded discussion questions;
  • Arranging the classroom and creating norms that help students listen and respond to each other; and
  • Using wait time and question rephrasing to draw all students into the discussion.

A Classroom Filled with Student Discourse

When 5th grade teacher Hope Harrod prepared to teach a lesson on informational texts, she chose an above-grade-level piece on the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Not only did she want students to learn how a teenager became a powerful voice for girl’s education, she also wanted them to grapple with complex text structure and many new words and ideas whose meaning they’d have to discern from context – like “extremism”  and “unstable government.”

In choosing what she calls a “meaty” text, her goal was to maximize the opportunities for her students to uncover its meaning in high-level discourse with their classmates. Says Harrod: “I think of the content as sort of sitting in the middle of the students, and as they have a discussion, the ideas are bouncing around the classroom as they’re talking and coming up with their thinking about its meaning.”

At Burroughs Elementary, where Harrod teaches, teachers and leaders have made it a priority to ensure that students become experts in high-level academic discourse—in which students continually use the text to explain their thinking, and respond to their classmates as much as they do to their teachers.  As Burroughs Principal LeVar Jenkins explains: “When they get to the intermediate grades, it’s really important for students to talk to one another and get their thoughts out—to express their viewpoints as well as defend them. That’s a critical skill.” (Read more about how Burroughs leaders support student discourse.)

"When they get to the intermediate grades, it's really important for students to talk to one another and get their thoughts out...that's a critical skill." - Principal LeVar Jenkins

Putting the Text at the Center of Student Discourse

What that looks like is clearly evident in Harrod’s recent lesson on Malala Yousafzai. Students sit in a seminar-style U, and preface their comments by acknowledging what classmates have said (saying “I agree with___, and would like to add on.”) Harrod, who sits with the students rather than stand, guides the conversation with questions that keep the focus on what’s in the text, as in:

  • “What’s happening in this sentence?”
  • “Can you build on that?”
  • “Can you show me where in the text it tells you that?”
  • “Can you use the text to prove you’re right?”
  • “Are there other words in that sentence that can tell us what that means?”

Very rarely does Harrod explicitly call out a particular idea or word. Instead, after each student reads aloud, she asks open-endedly: “Any questions pop into your head?” and “Are there words in that sentence that we might not know?” While this lets students form their own questions, Harrod strategically pauses at points she’s already identified as likely to challenge students’ comprehension.

Harrod’s students sit in a seminar-shaped U.

Take this example: When a girl reads aloud a sentence about life in Taliban-controlled regions, Harrod asks, “What is this part of the passage about?” When another student answers by quoting from the text—“the Taliban’s oppressive rules”—Harrod presses further, “What do you think it means by ‘oppressive’?” This prompts further discussion among students about the text’s description of bans on cell phones, music, and movies—and on girls attending school. They agree that, based on the text, “oppressive” here describes rules that are “far more strict than normal.”

What’s not apparent in the discussion is which students are the most advanced, and which are the least. Over several minutes of discussion, Harrod calls on every student, and every student speaks. When a student doesn’t immediately answer, Harrod rephrases the question and uses wait time until the student formulates a response. Says the teacher: “You have to be patient, and not steal from them that opportunity to learn.”

"You have to be patient, and not steal from them that opportunity to learn."  - Teacher Hope Harrod

While elevating student voice, discourse serves a schoolwide goal of building better writers. As Harrod explains: “In discussions when students are tasked to explain their ideas, they have to use words and evidence to express their argument. So when they sit down to write a claim or to think about a text, they’ve already done that so much that their brain automatically starts doing it.” In Harrod’s class, discussions based on close reads of text are followed by writing tasks.

Planning for “Productive Struggle”

While the dialogue in Harrod’s class may seem unguided and at times almost effortless, in fact she puts a great deal of thought into preparing. How she prepped for the lesson on Malala illustrates her process:

  • Choose a text with challenging content. Since her goal was for students to wrestle with the text to uncover its meaning, she needed a text that would require them to do that. That’s why she went with an above-grade-level text that included many new concepts and words students would have to grapple with.
  • Identify standards relevant to the text. The Malala article told her story in non-chronological order – starting in the middle – allowing Harrod to address standards related to understanding complex narrative structures. She says: “Students have to figure out if the author is talking about the present, or something that happened in the past.”
  • Ask: What do I want students to walk away with? Harrod asks herself this to ground her lesson in an overarching goal. Of the lesson on Malala she says, “I want students with this article in particular to walk away knowing that good readers ask questions about the text.” She says Malala’s story is especially good for this because it relates events that are both unexpected and compelling—so students will naturally ask themselves “What happens next?” In her planning, she identifies those surprising moments as places to stop and ask what questions students have about narrative.
  • Prepare key questions about the text to build on what students ask. As Harrod read the article herself, she jotted down in the margins questions she could ask to probe the text more deeply at points where students were likely to wonder about what’s happening in the narrative—like “How is a 15-year old a threat?” During the discussion, this is when Harrod presses students to look in the text for evidence to support their answers.
  • Identify vocabulary for students to decipher. For each text she teaches, Harrod creates a list of “nice-to-know” and “need-to-know” words that are likely unfamiliar to students. For the Malala piece, the former are mostly place names (e.g. “Swat Valley”) while the latter are essential for understanding the article (e.g. “oppressive” and “refugees.”) Harrod doesn’t point these words out or define them for her class; rather, she notes for herself where to stop to ask students what words are new to them, and then presses them to decipher their meaning from what else is in the text.
Harrod annotates the text with key questions and ideas.

Harrod and her colleagues at Burroughs are careful to note that high-quality student discourse doesn’t happen simply by asking the right questions about the right kind of text. It takes the right school culture. From pre-K on, students at Burroughs are given numerous opportunities to share what they know with their class. They’re taught how to acknowledge and praise their classmate’s contributions. Much effort goes into building strong and trusting relationships among students and with their teachers. All that creates a “safe space” for students to offer their ideas in the classroom.

Students respond to Harrod asking, “Any questions pop into your head?”

Ultimately, Harrod says the most important lesson that students learn from engaging in high-level discourse is about themselves: “I believe very strongly that it's important for students to learn how to articulate their ideas with measured precision, so they can think about their ideas in a way that is analytical and critical, but also start to think about the fact that they are people who have voices and their voices are important.”

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Taking it Back to Your School

Watch the videos in this article with your instructional leaders and/or teachers. 

  • What “talk moves” does Harrod use to support high-level, text-based discourse?
  • How does her planning support those moves?
  • What does academic discourse look like in your classrooms?
  • How might you/your teams plan for an upcoming lesson by closely reading the text, identifying points of productive struggle, and preparing questions that prompt students to uncover the meaning themselves.

Hope Harrod has been a 4th and 5th grade teacher in DC Public Schools for 21 years. She has a master’s degree in education from Boston College. In the 2012-13 school year, she received DCPS’s highest teaching honor, the Excellence in Teaching Award and Teacher of the Year. She currently serves on the boards of An Open Book Foundation and Live it Learn it, which are both DC-based nonprofits. She is also a trustee of Kenyon College.

LeVar Jenkins has been the principal at Burroughs Elementary School since 2016. Previously, Jenkins served as assistant principal at Plummer and H.D. Cooke Elementary Schools, a DCPS special education coordinator, and a teacher with Fairfax County and Prince George’s County Public Schools. Burroughs Elementary School has been recognized as one fourteen schools in the District of Columbia that are outperforming their peers. Jenkins received his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and his master’s degree in education with a focus in special education from Bowie State University. He is an alum of Relay's Leverage Leadership Institute and has been coached by Relay's Leadership Programs team.


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