When a classroom discussion is channeled mainly through the teacher, there's a danger that much of the "good stuff" happens for the teacher, rather than for the students. That is, the teacher serves as the connector of information, the synthesizer of ideas, the discoverer of symbolic import, the head thinker, and therefore the chief receptor of the "aha" moment.
Last week in one of my English classes, I noticed that I was playing the starring role in a conversation about Ethan Frome. As points from students funnelled through me, I made connections to other books we had read this semester; I pointed out the way symbols were changing; I made guesses about character motivation. Class was going well . . . or was it? I made a quick decision to help me step off the stage; here's a look at my process:
- I wrote a question on the board.
- I asked students to consider the question for five minutes, digging up evidence and constructing a few talking points.
- I wrote a list of "discussion finishers" on the board: This discussion will continue until I hear 5 quotations from the book, 3 moments of constructive disagreement, 4 different solutions to the original question, 3 moments where someone adds on to a point made by a classmate, 1 consensus opinion about the most thorough solution to the question.
- As the conversation ran, I resisted the urge to jump in. I forced myself to hedge to three very clear mental models: at any moment, I could be a traffic director, referee, or scorekeeper. That's it.
- When the conversation lagged, I returned student attention to the discussion finishers on the board. When it lagged a second time, I gave them a few minutes of quiet time to rethink their approaches or return to the original question.
The discussion itself was a little clunky, a little self conscious, but it ended better than it started and it foreshadowed some fine work in the future.
It also reminded me of a few things:
Good discussions, like good meals and good poems, don't just happen. (The analogy gains some clarity in the wonderful first paragraph of this essay by Charles Simic.)
Sometimes you have to be explicit about what good discussions look like; often you have to find ways to break patterns of communication that develop in your classrooms. (These rules are especially important if you are a somewhat natural discussion leader. The most natural among us should probably be questioning their assumptions most frequently.)
Perhaps more important, you have to remember that a really good class isn't a feeling that happens to the teacher . . . it's a feeling that happens to the students. Things connect for them. A hunch becomes a thesis becomes a paper. The beauty of a piece of writing sneaks up on them like a crush. A semester-long theme snaps into focus. Corners of their own lives are suddenly lit up and brand new.
I absolutely love to read and dissect texts, and I feel a great thrill when I am able to make connections within those texts. But I'm not paid to be an ecstatic reader who graces students with his wisdom and presence -- I'm paid to be an intentional teacher, egging on the great minds of the next generation.
P.S. The Exeter Humanities Institute is maybe the best place to deeply engage with the concepts I discussed in this post. Watching Ralph Sneeden, one of its leaders, run a discussion is like watching a great coach run a practice or a great conductor lead an orchestra. What's more, you might get to be a participant in a discussion he is running. Then you know what it feels like to be an athlete at that coach's practice or a musician in that conductor's orchestra.