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Spotlight on Strategies:Talking sticks

Watch a video, or listen to audio, then group students in small circles and provide them with a talking stick - holding the stick means you can talk for one minute while the rest of the group listens. Display a pre-prepared question with each group member having one minute to share their answers and ideas related to the question. Once all members have spoken, the group has one minute to discuss what they've heard. Repeat the process for each question. Finish with the whole class sharing key concepts, thoughts and understanding.

Big idea

Being an effective communicator involves not only talking, but also active listening. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills highlight the importance of developing communication skills in preparation for college and career readiness. These skills are not always easy to acquire. Being a good listener is tough, particularly when some members of the group are passionate, knowledgeable or opinionated. 

There are stories of indigenous peoples from around the world using "talking sticks" to ensure equity of voice. A talking stick provides everyone in the group with a visual signal as to who has the floor, and helps everyone to share equally in the discussion. Using a talking stick in the classroom can help students learn to self-monitor their participation in group discussions, leading to more purposeful contributions and better listening.

Overview of strategy

  • Ages:Early years, Primary & Secondary
  • Media type used:Video & Audio
  • Preparation time:High
  • Download strategy PDF
Steps

Materials: 

a talking stick for each small group (an actual stick, paint stick, lolly pop stick, etc.), media resource (video or audio), question stems or specific questions to be answered

  1. Students watch or listen to a media resource. If needed, pause for note-taking or replay media to ensure comprehension.
  2. Have groups of 5-7 students sit in a circle. Provide each group with a talking stick.
  3. Review guidelines for using the talking stick:
    • the person with the stick is allowed one minute of uninterrupted talking
    • all other group members listen to the person talking
  4. Display the first question where everyone can see it. You can also provide each group a set of cards with the printed questions.
  5. Each person in the group has one minute to share their answers and ideas related to the question. The stick is then passed to the next person in the circle.
  6. Once all group members have had the chance to speak the whole group has one minute to discuss/respond to what they have heard.
  7. Repeat the process for each question.
  8. Finish with a whole group sharing of key concepts, thoughts and understanding. 
Sum it up

Using talking sticks provides students with a tool to help them self-monitor who is talking during a discussion. One way to be prepared for using this strategy at any time would be to have some question stem cards prepared ahead of time. Some sample question stems that would work well with this strategy include:

  • "I think/believe that..."
  • "In my opinion..."
  • "As I read/listened/watched this I was thinking ..."
  • "This makes sense to me because ..."
  • "This doesn't make sense to me because..."
  • "One question I have about this topic is ..."
  • "I wonder..."
More ideas

Once students are experienced with using just one talking stick you could adapt the strategy by providing each group of students with a pile of sticks (start with two or three sticks per group member). Rather than passing the talking sticks around the circle, have students take a stick from the pile each time they share a comment or idea. When finished sharing, the student would keep that stick in front of them. The goal would be to end the discussion with each person having the same number of sticks.

This can build up to small group discussion where any member of the group is welcome to share and respond without having to wait until it is their turn to speak.

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