Friday, September 26, 2014

Accountable Talk & How Words Exist in the Mouth

Sunday Afternoon (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

There's this memory I have that stays with me across more than a decade. It chills me still.  

Rob and I are visiting friends--a couple with two kids.  We are in our early 30s, sans children, and it is dinnertime and this home is pure chaos. The mom, our friend, is a novelist and an English professor. Her daughter, a third-grader will tell us at the conclusion of dinner that she needs us to sit down to review and evaluate a video tape of her and three classmates discussing a book at school. These 8- and 9-year-olds have been learning how to talk. How to be accountable. Their homework is to 'share' the video with their families and critique it. I kid you not. 

The mom refuses saying something about the intrusion of school into home, but I'm stuck on the talk and honestly I've never left that stucked place. It rattles me, the granddaughter of Irish--this shaping of language without consent. I'm reminded of my mom's mother who as a young girl hid behind hedgerows to learn how to speak the language of her birth--a language that was forbidden under British rule.  In those volatile years before Ireland gained its independence, my grandmother had to hide in order to speak and pray.


This last week I participated briefly in a chat focused on the use of accountable talk, knowing the tweets I sent might not be well received.  The phrase is trademarked by the University of Pittsburgh. The belief is that through structured language exchanges, peers can help one another to learn.  Below is an accountable talk poster from Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg's Content-Area Conversations (ASCD). They tell us:
Students take quickly to accountable talk, and many appreciate the guidelines because they prevent conversations from going astray.
from here

And yet, going astray, is often how we make meaning and it ought not to be a privilege only afforded some.  We need not guard our imperfections or limit our students' naive ways of saying. These speech moments are invitations for us to learn.  Each utterance, in its imprecision and faultiness, are human badges so to speak. We should at the very least allow ourselves and others to wear them.


I do understand the seemingly charitable intention that accountable talk promoters desire.  These educators want kids to learn and recognize that talk is a conduit for making meaning.  I don't disagree with this belief about talk and learning.  Bakhtin in a bit of lovely and lucid prose told us: “Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication..."  Meaning is made among these linkages that build and fall apart. And yes, they need to be able to do both: build and fall apart at will. 

Accountable talk grows up alongside accountable teaching and accountable learning as measured by the slimmest of instruments: the annual high stakes test. A test, by its very description must be stripped from the local, the intimate, the here and now.  It is decontextualized fodder that feeds our penchant for correctness as measured by these school reading and math tests. All of this provides the rational for shorting thought by providing language stems for children and teens to utter. They must get to a place someone has deemed important and do so in ways that are wholly recognizable.  And here I wonder: Could we be any crazier? Any less inventive?


I have been long fascinated by how people get said what must be said (yes a nod to William Carlos Williams) much more so than I am by what gets said.  Matters of correctness, accuracy, right, depth and the hundred other synonyms we may well have about end results are more about our lack of imagination, than some important treatise on learning.  For it is in the making of utterances, this chain of speech, this communion that our teaching work needs to be lodged--not to pre-shape children's speech, but to best ensure that their speech has full permission to be uttered and to lean in and make sense of learners' attempts at making thought.   

We would do well to remember what Robert Frost told Sidney Cox (1.19.1914) in a letter he wrote one winter evening:
Words exist in the mouth not in books. You can't fix them and you don't want to fix them. You want them to adapt their sounds to persons and places and times. You want them to change and be different.
Words exist in the mouth.
We shouldn't want to fix them.


  1. Thanks for this blog entry. It makes me know a little more about you and it makes me think a lot - some challenging ideas. Amazing the idea of "forbidden" languages - but then, perhaps not as amazing if one knew more of the history.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read the post, David. The Penal Laws in Ireland were brutal. Colonized people have their language and rituals stolen and forbidden. These acts are at the center of control.


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