As I begin my first day of summer vacation, memories of this past school year are fresh in mind, and I cannot help but evaluate the larger picture of my pedagogy: What did I do effectively this year? Where did I go wrong? What should I do differently next year?
The school year ended, summer has started, and projections about day 1 of next year are already formulating in my mind. I can’t think of a better way to indulge in such reflection than by referring to such a reputable source like Peter Smagorinsky (2008). In reference to in-class discussions, he states:
“I have found that students appreciate approaching literature through a variety of astructures, tasks, and activities, which alleviates the tedium that they haveunfortunately come to expect in school. More important, however, by engaging in these activity-oriented, student-centered means of discussion, students become more active agents of their learning and rise to a higher level of expectation for their engagement with literature,” (Smagorinsky, pg. 44).
Most educators would probably say that they strive for an “activity-oriented, student-centered” classroom, but perfecting what this actually means and looks like is a task that most teachers—at some point in their career—fall short of. One aspect of my teaching I am proud of from this past year was my effort to promote authentic discussions: engaging dialogues in which students respond to each other and use evidence to support substantial claims about meaningful topics.
Undoubtedly, students prefer hearing their own voices rather than listening to their teachers talk for the entire period, butas Johannessen & Kahn (2007) note,“Unfortunately, studies of classrooms reveal that students are seldom engaged in authentic discussion. Christoph and Nystrand (2001) and Nystrand (1997) report that, in the classrooms they observed, authentic discussion occurred on average for only fifty seconds per class in eighth grade and fifteen seconds per class in ninth grade classes,” (Johannessen & Kahn, pg. 101). A classroom that lacks in authentic dialogue will fall short in other critical aspects of learning such as engagement and formative assessment. Students must be able to voice their understandings to test understandings and receive feedback on misunderstandings.
One of the difficult aspects of an authentic discussion is to motivate students to respond to others. Many teachers will fall into a IRE (teacher initiates-student responds-teacher evaluates) pattern of questioning. This form of questioning--two teacher contributions for every one student contribution--minimizes the amount of time students get a chance to talk and heightens the amount of teacher talk in class. But how should a teacher go about getting students to respond to others? Ask them to! Step out of the conversation and establish some key policies and procedures:
- Focus the discussion on open-ended questions or questions that will elicit many different responses. Ideally, these questions relate to a specific inquiry question and/or questions related to that inquiry.
- Give students time to prepare contributions and require that they use evidence to support their responses.
- Set up the classroom so that students are facing each other, and the teacher is on the outside. Yes, the teacher should not be the center of attention. Take notes publicly so students can track how the dialogue is constructing knowledge.
- After a student is done talking, he or she should call on the next volunteer to talk. What if there are no volunteers? The first time a teacher does this, there might be very awkward silence, but like the Depeche Mode song, enjoy the silence! Inevitably a student will break the unbearable pause. Once the policy is established, the awkward pauses will diminish. Don’t doubt students have to learn how to engage in substantial and meaningful conversations.
- Students should demonstrate uptake—the ability to incorporate a previous speaker’s point or language in one’s own contribution to show the connection between responses. “I agree with you about X, but I don’t agree about Y.”
- Try to hear from all students and in a balanced manner (not a few students dominating conversation). “Okay, if you have talked twice or more, give others an opportunity to talk for the next 5 minutes” or “Let’s shift gears. Can someone that hasn’t talked yet start us off on a new topic?” and even motivating students to ask the question, “Does anyone want to talk that hasn’t?”
- When students are not talking, they should be taking notes, annotating, or having an online discussion.
- Check in with students 2-3 times during or after the discussion and ask, “What are we doing effectively? How can we improve? You can refer back to your notes to highlight strong contributions, clarify misunderstandings, and provide feedback.
Take a look at a transcript from a final discussion on A Tale of Two Cities that occurred last week. The question students were discussing was, “How does Charles Dickens use minor and major characters to comment on human nature?” At first I didn’t like this question. I thought it was too broad and that it should be focused more directly on our inquiry. Nonetheless, many of my colleagues were using the same question, so I thought, “My colleagues are pretty smart, so why not see what students come up with?” Given that there were three other focus questions for discussion, I decided to give it a shot. Students had 20 minutes to work with a partner to formulate responses and supporting examples. This is a selection from a small portion of the dialogue that ensued the next day:
STUDENT 1: I think Dickens wants us to understand the evilness of human nature. Ordinary people can be evil and contribute to the world in a negative way. Like when it says, “I call it my Little Guillotine. La, la, la; La, La la! And off his head comes!” (Dickens, pg. 275). He [the wood-sawyer] thinks it’s funny. He doesn’t have much value for life. He’s [Dickens is] using this minor character to demonstrate there is an evilness to human nature.
STUDENT 2: Yet to go off your claim—I agree that all people are innately evil. Gaspard was so upset that the Marquis killed his son, and on page 130 it says, “Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife…. ‘Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques,’” (Dickens, pg. 130). This just shows that people are driven by revenge. Gaspard goes to kill Marquis because of revenge.
STUDENT 3: I can see your point that human nature is innately evil but I cannot say that it is for certain. Human nature is easy to follow with Sydney Carton, “I see the lives for which I lay down my life,” (Dickens, pg. 372). He had no will to live but found a purpose to live, to die for his friends. He doesn’t seem that evil to me.
STUDENT 4: Human nature is innately evil, but that doesn’t mean that they are always evil. They can demonstrate good, but they are motivated mostly by wants and needs. The marquis was driven by his selfishness, “It is extraordinary to me… that you cannot take care of yourselves and your children,” (Dickens, pg. 111). He doesn’t care about killing a boy and just kills someone because he’s selfish.
This discussion is not perfect. Each student could be more articulate; there are a few points that need to be clarified; the connection between each idea could be more explicitly stated. Next year, I will make intentional efforts to close those gaps depicted in the transcript with future students.
However, there are a few things I like about that exchange: students are responding to each other, using evidence to support their ideas, and are offering different viewpoints on the ethical nature of individuals—pretty substantial material for 9th graders. Jeffrey Conant Markham (2007) notes that “education is essentially an ethical endeavor…. my own career has become increasingly focused on ethics—almost everything we read and discuss has an ethical dimension, and allowing our students to avoid this dimension, for me, represents real failure,” (Markham, pg. 19). Thus, to put students in a position where they can explore the ethical dimensions of a complex text is a worthwhile undertaking.
Furthermore, in the dialogue the teacher’s voice was minimized, and the students’ voices were heightened. The more opportunities a student has to engage in critical issues, the more they will understand those issues. Don’t fool yourself in thinking that it’s the other way around—that the more a teacher talks, the more students will understand. To be clear, I am not saying to let students leave with misinformation or let students completely run class. The idea is that a teacher should do everything he or she can to motivate students to construct knowledge on their own and engage with each other about critical issues.
The dynamics of teacher talk vs. student talk begs more fundamental pedagogical issues such as, “How should teachers engage students in learning? Who holds the knowledge in the classroom? What is the correlation between discussions and literacy comprehension?” These questions are difficult to answer, but have serious implications on our students’ lives; therefore, these issues must be examined.
How we talk not only matters in school but also outside of the classroom. We live in a rapidly changing society in which communication is being transformed by technology. I often hear people say, “Young kids just don’t know how to talk to each other anymore.” Given the transcript above, I’m not sure that is true, but one only needs to look around to see that people often communicate more with their phones rather than the person next to them. Students must be taught and put in the position to communicate in meaningful ways. When it comes to the classroom, I will err on hearing more from the students rather than hearing more of my own voice. Students will enjoy their educational experience more, and they will get more out of it. I will end here with a quote from John Dewey on the power of communication:
Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. (Democracy and Education, pgs. 5-6).
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. Print.
Dickens, Charles, and Gillen D'Arcy. Wood. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. Print.
Johannessen, L. and E. Kahn "Engaging Students in Authentic Discussions of Literature." Talking in Class: Using Discussion to Enhance Teaching and Learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Markham, Jeffrey C. "Inquiry Versus Naïve Relativism: James, Dewey, and Teaching the Ethics of Pragmatism." Talking in Class: Using Discussion to Enhance Teaching and Learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Smagorinsky, Peter. Teaching English by Design: How to Create and Carry out Instructional Units.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. Print.