On Embracing Discourse


When I took on the challenge of becoming a National Board Certified teacher in 2000, I videotaped myself for the “Whole Class Discussion” portfolio entry.

It was a dismal affair.  It featured a teacher pitching vague questions that went nowhere, followed by some that were enthusiastically answered by the two or three extroverts in the room. The rest of the students busied themselves picking lint off their clothing.

Luckily, board certification is primarily reflective.  My reflection indicated that this was an area where I needed help—fast.

That was 16 years ago, but correcting this one problem lead to a continual search for strategies that let students lead their own learning. It has been well worth the journey.

Socratic Seminars

These days Socratic Seminar is nothing new but was only sporadically used in 2000.  A younger teacher helped me organize my first seminar with ninth graders.  Changing my own behavior proved to be the hardest aspect of the initiative.  I literally had to force myself to look down at the desk and not at my students lest they talk to me instead of their peers.

Still, I was impressed with the ninth graders.

 Their first discussion centered on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  I can still recall the exhilaration I felt as the students wrestled with this story.  I was astounded by their insights.  And the learning!  They wrote down and turned in their summaries of the conversation, and they were deep and personal.  It seemed each student took away his or her own truth.

 In reading their reflections I also realized that students were likely only getting a part or possibly misleading messages from my teacher-directed talk.  I also learned that I needed to shut my big mouth more and let the students talk.  Just like my forays into self-selected reading for Silent Sustained Reading, I found they were getting much more out of the time spent on choice than an equal time spent on teacher-directed instruction.

Professional Growth

 From that point forward, the game was on: I tried to re-form lessons so I could get out of the students’ way. Today, nearly every decision in the classroom is front-loaded with this one: How much of this can the students do without me?

This student-directed learning has resulted in:

·      Student led bell ringers on vocabulary, allusions, book chats, and literary terms.

·      Small group reading log discussions.

·      Small group question formation for unit study or research

·      Small group scoring of essays

·      Research groups where brainstorming and rehearsing of findings occurs

·      Speed-dating research papers for MLA or other structural features

·      Peer review of writing-always done but now embraced with enthusiasm

·      Large group sharing of writing (author’s chair)

·      Recitations

·      Skit development from Shakespeare

·      Group collaboration on writing/filming/editing Public Service Announcements as a culminating activity in argument.

·      Peer-to-peer sharing.

 I’m sure there is more, but this is how a single question — How can I improve whole class discussion? — unleashed a foray into inquiry-based instruction.  Though I facilitate each activity, the structure lets students bounce around inside a framework, looking for their own answers.  And as Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.”  Students are learning that they are the answer to their own question.

This, too, is what convinces me that teachers must take an inquiry stance toward their own profession.  Teacher-developed questions transform the classroom into a student-watching laboratory and a chance to learn from observation.  Plus it’s fun.

The Next Evolution — Harkness

I no longer use Socratic Seminar in my classroom.  The structure of evaluating each student individually soon surfaced a new problem: the students were not wrestling with ideas by listening to each other and pressing for more information or a new angle on the argument.  They kept dropping compelling questions as they surfaced one new idea after another.  I wanted them to see how much fun it is to play with an idea.

Through the Advanced Placement listserve I stumbled across the Harkness discussion model and Jodi Rice’s online resources.  (https://sites.google.com/site/jodisschooldocs/harkness/implementing-harkness)

We now use this model, and I do even less.

 Each discussion has its own evaluator who charts the conversation and tells the group how well they did, offering suggestions for the next discussion.  Again, the students do this extremely well.  This year we added the role of Devil’s Advocate—a kind of ‘wild card’ position where a student may talk as often as he or she wants, but only in challenging questions.  The classes will decide whether they want to hold on to this role or not, but so far, I have to do little or nothing during our conversations as the students both question and evaluate each other.

This week I worried with the students whether or not they were learning anything due to the numerous weather-related interruptions.  One student piped up, “I feel like I’ve learned a lot already!  Every time we have a Harkness.”  Students have volunteered in writing that this is their favorite activity.  They often comment that they love seeing how their classmates think, reason, and develop their ideas.  I think they have learned that searching for a truth is fun.

The beginning of a new course is now unsettling because a quiet classroom, as polite new students will tend to be, makes me very nervous.

Mary Tedrow is a National Board Certified Teacher. She teaches English at John Handley High School and is the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. http://shenandoahwritingproject.org/