The students at my school struggle with oral language. Some of them struggle because they are learning English as a 2nd or 3rd language. Some of them come from a home culture where it isn’t customary for children to actively participate in conversation. Many of them seem to lack experience in sustaining discussion on a topic for more than two or three exchanges. Because our staff is focusing on student engagement this year, there is a heightened awareness around student talk and keeping meaningful conversation alive in the classroom.
I decided to do my part with my preschool students. A few weeks ago I asked them what they knew about “conversation.” One little guy told me “you have to look at each other.” That is good information! Since that introductory session, we have been paying attention to who we talk to during the day – a teacher or a friend, and what we talked about with each other – work, play, stories about home, memories, favorite books.
This weekend I was made aware of conversation in an adult setting. A dear friend invited me to go with her to a bed and breakfast on Orcas Island for two nights. The hosts at this home don’t just present a sideboard of breakfast food or load a plate and put it on the table. They served courses – a dollop of frozen fruit juice, pineapple slices, then homemade granola and finally pumpkin pancakes and sausage. While the food was exquisite and the portions just right, the most important factor was timing. By serving the breakfast little bits at time, the people at our table entered into conversation with each other.
Later on in the day my friend and I commented about this to our host. She thanked us and told us of her experience a few weeks ago with two couples who sat through an entire breakfast only talking to the partner they had come to the house with. She was surprised they could go through an entire meal and not talk across the table. She noted that almost everyone can find something in common to talk about and noted our table’s discussion about pets that morning.
The last day of our stay it was only 4 of us at the table in the morning. We chatted about our activities of the previous day and expectations for the current day but as the courses came slowly from the kitchen, we moved on to headier topics: the reflection of cultural changes in the media and taking care of loved ones at the end of their lives. My friend and I spent an hour in the company of people we had only just met and would never see again and yet simple conversation made the time incredibly rich and rewarding.
I know that conversation – especially casual conversation with strangers – is an art. There are topics everyone seems to begin with, the weather, pets, food. The art comes in the ability to shift the topic to something more meaningful and yet just as human and yet maintain the comfortable flow of the sharing of thought in word without leaving anyone out.
Back to work today and conversations with 3-5 year olds who never seem to be at a loss for words or topics, I just have to work hard to listen to what they are communicating.