While plowing through essays during my planning period one day, I peered out the window to an outdoor area where students gather after lunch. It was a place teeming with laughter, storytelling, music, and the not-too occasional whip or nae-nae. Struck by the vibrant conversations that were happening in the courtyard, it was clear that these overly digitized and increasingly isolated social media victims still retained the ability to speak, listen, and express themselves.
Except, of course, in my English class. These same kids who conversed so well in the school courtyard were silent when it came to talking about content in class. This is a common issue many teachers face. It’s not that our students don’t know how to discuss, they just don’t know how to in school. The ability to converse is vital for an engaged class but also to creating well-rounded citizens. In a time where civil discourse is needed now more than ever, teachers have to ensure kids know how to discuss in a professional, structured setting. Here are some tips for helping students learn how to discuss in school.
Create a physical space that promotes discussion.
The most elemental change we can make is to rearrange and provide seating so everyone can see each other. Many discuss, share, and argue while around a table. Few sit down to talk with friends about Grandmaster’s fate in Avengers: Infinity War by sitting in rows and staring at the back of each other’s heads. Desks can be arranged in a circle, in a U-shape, or in small-group clusters. I prefer one complete circle so that my seat is no more central than any other. This communicates a fundamental shift in power. I give up my position of authority and sit at my students’ level; students are then empowered to rise up to a level of authority and responsibility for the discussion.
Teach discussion strategies to students.
Students and faculty need to be shown how to translate those skills into the classroom. Providing a seminar based on M. Rebecca Moore’s essay “Taking a Seat at the Table: Harkness Teaching and Learning” is a great place to start. Based on her suggestions, we put our hands on our desks and then slap them one by one in sequence around the circle. After a few laps, we then cross our right arms over the left arm of the people sitting beside us and repeat the exercise.
We then create a story. One student is given a paper ball and begins with “Once upon a time, _____.” That student then passes the ball to another student who adds a few sentences and furthers the plot. This continues until the last person concludes, “And they all lived happily ever after.”
We debrief after each activity and talk about the skills needed to make them work. We connect how those same skills (listening, attentiveness, contributions that further the story, etc.) are needed for a quality classroom discussion.
Model effective discussions for the class.
I set the bar high and show students some outstanding videos of classroom discussions (a Socratic Seminar and a Harkness discussion) that also help teachers catch a vision of what their own classrooms might become. Upon viewing, one student honestly exclaimed, “There’s no way in hell we’ll be able to do that!” She was right. But when we re-watched the video at the end of the year, they realized they got really close. And they were, rightly, proud.
Never stop practicing discussions.
This year I found an article on the educational benefits of playing Fortnite and shared it with the class. After reading, my eight graders vigorously wrote down their thoughts for 10 minutes. We established that there would be no raising of hands, that no one could talk over another, and that they could only use the provided phrases on the whiteboard (“I hear what _____ is saying, but I think … ,” “That reminds me of … ,” “It says in the article … ,” etc.).
Most importantly (if painfully), I, as their teacher, was forbidden to speak.
The first try was not good, and the kids struggled with the protocols. But we kept at it every day. It got to be that kids would enter the room and ask, “Are we starting with a discussion, because I’ve got something to say!”
The ability to communicate is one of the skills modern employers value most. School needs to be a place that teaches this skill. The good news is that students already possess it; educators just need to refine it. I can confidently declare that bringing the life of the courtyard into my classroom has been the greatest culture change in my teaching career.
Plus, check out this article about 5 Classroom Management Strategies You Can Use As a Principal.