By Shira Hillyer, English Language Arts Content Area Director
In a Hawaiian classroom, one might hear an ELA teacher suggest some food for thought and then allow the students to “talk story” at their tables or perhaps as a whole-class discussion. A loose translation of “talk story” is simply “discuss amongst yourselves” or “chat freely,” and, if one has never seen this before, it might at first appear unorganized. But in practice, it is much more than just an unstructured discussion.
Talk story represents a style of learning quite different from traditional lectures and direct instruction. Talk story can certainly be used in conjunction with these methods but is based on the premise that students and teachers share and learn from each other as equals in the classroom community.
Talk story recognizes the value, legitimacy, and diversity of student voices. In a society as richly diverse as a Hawaiian classroom, students may be of Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan, Micronesian, or Filipino descent or may have Chinese, Japanese, or European heritage. Students might speak English, Hawaiian, or Pidgin or other languages at home. Students might have their own room in their parents’ three-bedroom, single-family home or share a bed in their auntie’s three-generation home. In some cases, students may sleep in the great outdoors under lightweight tents at the beach—because they have no home.
Over time and with practice, my second and third grade students on the Leeward side of Oahu began to thrive in this process of a shared discourse, which was quite different from what they were used to in previous classrooms. We established community agreements consistent with those taught in Tribes Learning Communities: attentive listening, mutual respect, right to pass/right to participate, and appreciations. My students understood the importance of their own perspectives and those of everyone around them. All voices deserved to be heard; all experiences contributed to the way they, as students, would dig into and digest everything we read.
I used talk story in a number of different ways. In addition to class discussions of read alouds, I set up Literacy Lunches, during which a reading group would get to come eat lunch with me once a week, and we’d read and chat. They’d communicate openly about a book’s thematic relevance in their lives such as overcoming a challenge and finding courage like in Ramona the Brave. Often from these discourses, the students would collaboratively and organically come up with the next inquiry topic for a writing project or a recommendation for the next book for Literacy Lunch. Their engagement with each text was profound and personal. They grew confident in the knowledge that their contextualized understanding was valuable and created substantive learning for all of us. I began to use talk story beyond just subject matter learning. At the end of each day, my students established a community circle to share successes and appreciations. This process was not an instructor-led reward system, but rather a time for students to participate in reflecting on their experiences from the day or the week and to celebrate themselves and each other.
Talk story in a classroom is not just an opportunity for students to respond to a prompt. It is an invitation to speak, to listen, to reflect, to engage, to appreciate, to learn. It is an acknowledgement that each person’s background can give us something new to experience and share. It is a celebration of children and their profound voices and of a centuries-old oral tradition of sharing culture through story. It is the understanding that our students’ stories are an evolving, amorphous doorway through which they enter the world of the classroom a little new and different every day. And it is the belief that we, as teachers, can learn as much from our students as they may learn from us.