Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Talking During Class: Student-Centered Discussions

Today some of my colleagues and I were discussing how to cultivate students who can engage in classroom discussions that are interesting, purposeful and function to actually unearth something.  I wanted to offer up some of the practices I use in my classroom that facilitate that type of student discussion. 

In the beginning of the year, I first set the expectation around discussion in our classroom: it is a vehicle to generate, build upon, and push their own and their classmates’ ideas.  It’s not just a time to skate on by while a couple precocious students give their thoughts to the teacher.  It’s one of the methods of discovery in our classroom.

Before beginning a discussion, I always direct them to the Discussion Sentence Starters posted on the classroom wall.  I encourage them to use these to help them share their own thoughts, as well as to continue off of someone else’s.  This forces them to listen as much as speak, since the expectation is that they will connect their ideas to something someone else has already contributed. 

In the beginning of some school years, I’ve even given participation credit for using a “discussion sentence starter” in class, thus incentivizing their use.  (Shout out to the amazing Melissa Koh, a San Francisco-based ELA educator and teacher coach, who got me excited about scaffolding these social/soft skills for students.)

Sometimes, though, even while my intention around classroom discussion is to open up the space for more student voice and exchange, I still retain the (false) sense that I have to “run things,” because, as the teacher, I am the ultimate curator of all learning within the classroom.  However, even if my intentions are to facilitate an open class discussion, having me as the hub to their conversational spokes actually limits what they say.  Or, perhaps, limits how they communicate.  And more importantly, limits their ability to direct a conversation down the paths of inquiry and discovery that most meet their needs in that moment.

So, last week, I attempted a Socratic Seminar-style discussion.  We had finally finished our novel, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and there was a lot to talk about. We got into one huge circle (of 33, no less!).  I went through the overview of the protocols:

As much as possible, I was not going to speak at all.  They needed to figure out how to keep the discussion going.  They got 2 grades for the discussion: 1 based on their individual contributions, and 1 based on how well they, as a whole, functioned.  Three people talking to each other while the rest of us kick back and passively watch does NOT make for a high quality discussion.  

I asked them how to get more people involved (“We could ask someone a question.”), and how to make it flow well (“We could say, ‘Adding on to what so-and-so said,’ to keep things going.”) 

And we were off! 

We went around the circle first with a general “go around” question about the book that everyone could/must answer.  That way, the initial friction of moving from silence into voice had already been overcome.  Then, I posted a series of different questions they could use to prompt themselves on the discussion.  

At first they raised their hands and waited for me to call on them.  I just sat silently, with my pen and clipboard ready to trace their discussion on my diagram, and waited.  They sort of looked around at each other, their eyes questioning what should happen, until someone took leadership and began talking.  They would later have to keep reminding each other, “She’s not going to call on you.  You can just talk.”  And eventually they stopped looking at me for my reaction and started communicating with each other. 

Sure, there were a couple undoubtedly dumb moments (and I say this with lots of love in my heart) where they wandered down discussion threads that felt like a rabbit hole of wasted time, but then someone would inevitably come in to redirect the class toward something new – one redirection even caused classroom-wide laughter, a release valve as everyone was thankful that they could move on from the subject at hand. 

The method forced them to take on leadership for the good of the community, forced them to take risks and say something that mattered, that questioned, that analyzed, that theorized.

One moment that stood out the most was when a girl read us something from the readers guide in the back of the novel.  (It wasn’t assigned, but she just needed to continue to read more words in the book even after the story was completed, she loved it so much.) She said, “I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to, but here’s what I found out.  It was about the trauma of the story and how it all connects at the end.  I wrote it down. Octavia Butler said that she ‘didn’t let Dana come back all the way whole.  Dana couldn’t keep her arm because the Antebellum South doesn’t leave us fully whole.'  You can’t come back from that experience fully whole.”

And the entire room shifted.  It was palpable.  I'll admit that I got chills.  Classmates looked at each other – not to me – and said, “Whoa.  That gives me a whole new interpretation of this entire story.”  The format had given permission for the conversation to deviate and meander, to scavenge and offer up, to question and nourish one another.  And they were in control.

It was beautiful at times and awkward at other times, but as a whole, it felt like one of the most authentically “student-centered” discussions in my class this year.

I absolutely recommend others use this strategy.  You can see the thread of discussion plotted out below.  All 3 classes had about a 50% participation rate.  We’re going to aim for 75% next time! 

Shout out to my Teacher Action Group colleague, Jaimie Stevenson, who showed me how she used the Socratic Seminar discussion method in her middle school classroom!

Here is another great resource for doing student-led discussions: Detroit Future Schools Guide to Humanizing School   A few of us in TAG-Philly are going to do some peer-led Professional Development on it.  Comment below with your email (or get in touch directly, if you know me) if you're interested. 

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