Adventures in Classroom Discussions: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”

My career as an educator now includes about equal parts but different roles as first a high school English teacher, for nearly two decades, and now a college professor of education and composition/first-year writing, approaching two decades quickly.

My high school students were like family and friends, young people who were growing up in my hometown; therefore, my classes were energetic with lots of discussion—often rambling—and plenty of laughter. Those conversations carried over into non-class times of the day, after school, and during extracurricular activities, such as the years I was a coach.

When I switched to higher education, however, I encountered very silent classes—students who still tend to request that I talk most of the class because, as they say, they enjoy hearing someone knowledgable discuss the topics of the courses. This silence bothered me so early on I conducted several years of questionnaires asking students about why they tended not to talk in class.

Students openly confessed two reasons: (1) fear of being wrong in front of the professor, and thus hurting their status (re: grades), and (2) not wanting to “give away” the work they had done to peers in the class who had not prepared (a disturbing sort of capitalistic view of knowledge rejected by Paulo Freire as the “banking concept”).

As a result of this change in student behavior from high school to college teaching, I have had to work much more diligently and think much more deeply about classroom discussions in this last half of my career so far. Here I want to offer some guiding principles I have developed for classroom discussions and place them against one of my favorite lessons, using “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros—a story set in the classroom so it fits well in all the courses I now teach.

First, here are some guiding principles that I continue to wrestle with as I implement them to encourage student engagement and improve the effectiveness of classroom discussions:

  • Create opportunities for students to offer artifacts of being fully engaged in a class lesson and discussion that expand beyond only speaking aloud in class: Allow students to share in small groups before whole group discussions, provide students handouts that allow them to annotate on text to show engagement, and establish discussion journals that provide students spaces to write comments and responses that they would prefer not to say aloud. Traditional approaches to classroom discussion can be distinctly unfair to students who are less assertive or naturally vocal—students who are introverted, student still navigating their understanding and not ready to assert any claims.
  • Anticipate and then “deprogram” students from a common dynamic they have experienced with teacher-centered class discussions: When students reply correctly, teachers confirm (often interrupting the student) and move on; when students are off-base, teachers redirect, ask another question, etc. Therefore, students learn to use the teacher as the only/primary locus of authority, and (worse of all) are trained not to elaborate through providing evidence and explanation (two academic moves far more important than having the “right” answer). All student responses should be prompted to support and elaborate so that students (not the teacher) can tease out the validity of the response. If students need basic information, that should not be the goal of class discussions, but provided as a foundation before a discussion occurs.
  • Create a classroom environment around open-ended questions instead of “guess what the teacher wants you to say”: Who is the most interesting character in this story (and why)? v. Who is the protagonist in this story? Or, what is the best (most effective) sentence in this story for you (and why)? v. What are some metaphors and similes in this story? Open-ended questions are not, however, allowing students to say anything they please, but a way to avoid just filling in the blanks and asking students to provide evidence and elaborate.
  • Arrange the class so that students are looking at each other (not the teacher), and then foster a collaborative discussion in which students respond to each other and work through “confirming” as a class (a community) instead of relying on the teacher to confirm or reject. One way to move toward that is after a student replies, ask another student to restate what the first student said, and then to either defend it or help reframe it. This helps students see that knowledge is communal and constructed, not some divine pronouncement.
  • And a pet-peeve caveat: Do not get trapped in the misguided Bloom’s Taxonomy approach to questions; Bloom never intended for the taxonomy to be used as a linear/sequential guide to how we teach (it was designed for assessment). The six elements are valuable if we see them as holistic and interrelated aspects of how we learn and interrogate the world: Remembering, understanding, and analyzing contribute to evaluating and synthesizing while applying.

As I mentioned above, “Eleven” is often a powerful text for a class discussion—one that can be framed around effective writing and craft; around thinking about teaching, learning, teachers, and students; around understanding family and peer dynamics; or around identifying and confronting cultural tensions.

One key to vibrant class discussions is to be sure students are primed and not cold on the elements of the discussion. Therefore, I give students some guiding activities for them to complete as I read “Eleven” aloud to the class.

Some of those are:

  • Mark key sentences or passages that stand out to you because they are well written, interesting, problematic, or confusing. After the story is completed, pick the one you would most like to share.
  • Identify your mood in the margin of the story as I read aloud, noting when your mood shifts. Mark key words or sections that create the shift.
  • Pick the best single word in the story.

These activities while I read aloud help create something for students to say during a discussion. Next, I ask students to form small groups (I prefer three to a group) and to share one item with the group from the actions above.

I use that time to walk around and listen to the small group discussions and to look at the annotated stories on their desks. This allows me to confirm engagement so when we go to a whole-class discussion, the students who remain silent still can be identified as engaged.

Students can also be prompted to annotate the text further while discussing or to make entries in a class discussion journal they maintain throughout the course—even asking for those copies to be turned in for informal assessment.

Once we begin whole-class discussion, I implement the above principals by asking them to turn desks so they are facing inward and each other. I begin with asking for a volunteer to share any of the ideas prompted by the during-reading activities.

Once a student shares, I usually ask, “Can you show us where that is in the story? And can you elaborate on that for us?” Next, I typically ask another student to react to the first share—confirm, reframe, or build on the point made.

Here, I want to emphasize that this strategy and text are always successful in the context of my instructional goal: I am not trying to make students expert on Cisneros, this story, or literary terms/analysis, but I am helping students develop a set of important academic moves that translate into their writing—making credible claims and then providing valid evidence for the claims before elaborating on the importance of those claims to a wider purpose.

In other words, the discussion is student-centered, not allowing students just to say whatever they want, and grounded in the content in a way that uses content as a means and not the ends of the discussion.

For example, students often identify this passage as key: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

The important aspect of the discussion, however, is not that they identify the passage I have decided is key, but that they are able to explain in a detailed way what makes the passage key.

Students often share their own personal experiences similar to Rachel’s with her math teacher—feelings of anger and being insignificant. And from that we explore student/teacher dynamics and the often oppressive nature of schooling.

While I don’t want to oversimplify, vibrant class discussions are rarely about identifying and acquiring content knowledge, but are best when designed to foster powerful student behaviors that contribute to their development as critical thinkers, engaged listeners, and responsive speakers.

For this discussion as blog post, that key passage—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—can serve as an overarching guiding principle for orchestrating class discussions since it warns us about the failures of class discussions being more about students guessing what the teacher wants (and thus the teacher is the primary or sole arbiter of right and wrong) than about fostering students as critical and engaged thinkers.

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