For much of my teaching career, I avoided whole-class discussions because I didn’t see an educational pay-off. When I did my National Boards, for example, I assessed student ability to talk but I didn’t have a sense that the talking actually led to deeper understanding.
Basically, I knew it was right to teach young people how to speak and listen, but I didn’t know how to teach them why to speak and listen.
Part of the challenge is how conversations authentically happen. They are amorphous, circuitous, digressive, and compelled by innate interest. They come far easier during meal or on a bike or looking over the sea than sitting at a creaky table under harsh lights.
A few years ago I recognized that my students would not reach personal and permanent understandings of complex texts without talking about them. They had to talk. Yet, I also knew that over-scaffolding discussions, as I had done before, interfered.
This was my tension: How do I create an environment that nurtures rich discourse without suffocating its possibility with excessive scaffolds?
Laura Van der Ploeg helped me develop some strategies to make discussion be more authentic. This is one of them.
Just track. The image comes from three whole-class discussions in my junior level-class as we talked about pieces by James Baldwin, Kyoto Mori, and Sherman Alexie in order to answer, “What is a good education, and to what extent are you getting one?”
Simply put, this is data. Chicken-scratch, yes, but also statistics. In this case, at the end of each discussion, I put this up on the projector and had students reflect. I asked questions like:
- What do you notice about your own participation?
- What do you notice about the class’s?
- What are some patterns you see?
- What does this mean you need to work on?
- What do we need to work on?
- What does this not reveal about our discussion?
- Because of how we spoke and listened today, what do you understand more deeply about the text?
What I love about this method is that it lets students see patterns and ask questions. They assess.
Just looking at the data, you probably ask a lot of questions. I certainly do. What’s going on with Ohnee? Bryn used a lot of evidence in that last discussion. What prompted that? Alan is participating a lot, but not demonstrating specific kinds of thinking. What’s he doing that we should be listening for? Jarrod shares a lot. Are people listening to him?
This data resulted in new “listen-fors.” I started to track students connecting texts to each other and students modifying their thinking. Because of how few questions were being asked, I did a lesson on how to pose a question to a whole group, a skill that requires synthesis and courage. In our final discussion, six questions were posed, more than the total over the previous three conversations.
The Power of Patterns
Beyond sheer speaking and listening skills, documenting participation is powerful because it highlights issues of equity.
Our classrooms must embody the social justice we desire to see beyond our classrooms.
Last year in my 7th-grade class, the boys boys participated far more than the girls in our whole-class discussions. The boys weren’t seeing it. I knew if I lectured them, there wouldn’t be an impact. So, I had them do a discussion, tracked the participation, showed them the details, and they saw powerfully the discussion inequality. When looking at the data, I asked them, “Given this pattern, what points of view are we all missing out on?”
From that discussion on, it wasn’t just that the girls participated more, but more importantly, the boys held themselves accountable to listen more. This is a far different dynamic than telling a girl, “Speak up!” In this case, the data helped us see this wasn’t an issue of girls not participating. It was an issue of boys participating too much.
I look at my students’ recent data and new questions arise: Do my students not ask questions often because they associate questions with looking dumb? My students of color are participating less than my white students? What’s going on there? How might I disrupt that?
I see lessons I want to give and patterns I want to disrupt. That’s the point. Not only does this tell young people how they speak, but it tells me what to work on.
By presenting speaking and listening as something beyond just sentence stems, my students begin to understand that the point of a conversation isn’t to participate, but to participate in a way that leads to understanding. By intentionally working on how we speak and listen, that understanding will be deeper and richer than we can imagine.