Welcome back! This is my second post in my “Conversation Basics” blog series. My previous post discussed how I teach turn-taking with students who are learning the basics of social communication. Today I will be talking about how I use a conversation tree to teach turn-taking and staying on-topic with intermediate-level social communicators. I was inspired by Michelle Garcia’s Winner conversation tree from her book Thinking About You, Thinking About Me©, however, I’ve made many adaptations based on my students’ needs.
To prepare, I cut out a trunk, tree top, and small, rectangular pieces. I make four rectangles in each of four colors. I have all the pieces laminated as they often get crumpled and marked with whiteboard markers.
To begin, each student gets 3-4 pieces of their respective color. Newbies to the activity usually start with three, whereas the more advanced or extra chatty students get four pieces. I often put a question mark on one of a beginner’s pieces so he/she remembers to ask at least one question. Then we collectively decide on a topic for the conversation. When picking a topic, we consider whether it would be interesting to the other people in the group and if they will be able to contribute to the topic. Often one student will get stuck on the topic they prefer, but it allows an opportunity to discuss why it’s not a great topic. Once we’ve decided on the topic, I write it on the base of the tree in whiteboard marker so it can be referred to throughout the conversation.
Finally, based on the students and skills being targeted, I come up with a list of “rots.” Rots include only talking about themselves, going way off-topic, talking too long, having an awkwardly long pause, not including all members of the group, etc. I usually write this on a separate piece of paper as it can change for each conversation. This also allows me to point to the cause of the rot without creating a sub-conversation about the rot.
During the conversation, students add one of their pieces to the tree each time they contribute to the conversation. This includes questions, answers, and follow-up comments (which can include noises like, “Mmm”). When someone (or the group as a whole) causes a rot, I draw a little circle on the last piece of the trunk on the table. It’s important to note that a rot caused by one person affects the whole group, so it doesn’t matter what color was last played.
Usually if there are two rots, the tree will fall down and we’ll need to start the conversation over keeping the same topic. Sometimes my students get over-excited and want the tree to fall down, but they usually become bored when they have to converse on the same topic over and over. Importantly, if I have a student who is particularly anxious about messing up, I establish ahead of time a greater number of allowed rots. I want to make sure this is a safe learning experience for everyone and not just a test of conversation skills.
My last rule is there cannot be two of the same color pieces in a row. If the same person happens to make a follow-up comment followed by a question, he/she only puts down one piece. Once a student is out of pieces, he/she can no longer talk and it’s up to the rest of the group to use all of their pieces. This makes sure everyone participates and one student can’t completely compensate for the quieter members of the group. If at the end of the conversation someone still has one or more pieces left, but everyone else has used all of theirs, that counts as a rot because not all members of the group were included. This motivates the chattier members of the group to involve the quieter members and the quieter members to contribute.
Once all the group members have used all their pieces, we put the top on the tree and celebrate all the great things the students did during the conversation. If there is one rot in the tree, we review which behavior caused the rot without drawing too much attention to the person who caused it. We also talk about how one rot is a small problem because we were still able to have a great conversation, as demonstrated by the completed tree. When we are first learning the tree we will do several conversations with different topics, but once they have learned it I often do one conversation at the beginning of the session before moving on to another activity.
This activity provides the structure many students need to successfully participate in a conversation with peers. The structure also allows me to easily collect data on goals such as asking questions, commenting, staying-on topic, and/or participating in a conversation with a certain number of turns! The conversation tree is more challenging than my graphic organizer because students need to be more independent in generating questions and more comfortable taking conversational turns in a less structured order. It also places an emphasis on staying on topic. Stay tuned for my next post to help students stay on topic during longer conversations with even less structure!