Last week I wrote about one of the best class sessions I led this month, an open-ended discussion about Portia and healthy relationships. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that not all my lessons go that well. Reading Gary’s thoughts on real, Socratic dialogue and thinking through Peter’s discussion of deep disagreement makes me painfully aware of how often discussions don’t go well, or don’t even happen in my classroom.
For the past four years I’ve taught in the public system, and despite having quite a bit of actual freedom in how and what I teach, I’m significantly limited by 50 minute periods, standardized assessments, and generally low literacy.* I would be doing my particular students an injustice if I sat them in a circle from day one and asked them questions about Plato. For one, we can’t always read on day one, and more to the point, we can’t always sit in a circle and listen.
But, I’m not willing to give up on the discussion of ideas that matter in texts that are beautiful and true. I have too much respect for my students to give up on them, or to think that because of the social or educational situation in which they’ve found themselves, they’re not up for the same kinds of discussions that have changed me.
So, we take little steps. Here are four things I do in my classroom to introduce dialogue and to train discussion skills:
1. Ask follow up questions.
Students are used to answering questions, but they are not used to having to expand upon their answers. The best teaching I’ve watched made liberal use of the follow up question: “Why do you think that?” It makes students uncomfortable, but it immediately moves even the boring rehearsal of information into the realm of dialogue. It trains students to not be content with their first answer and builds skills that are necessary for discussion: perseverance, focus, and courage. I try to build this habit of asking follow up questions into all my student-teacher inactions; this allows me to be open to dialogue in unexpected moments.
2. Read texts that have good ideas, whatever their "reading level."
I've had amazing discussions while reading young adult novels. As I plan units, I've learned to spot texts that hint at deeper ideas and questions despite simple characters and straight-forward plots (more on this in a future post). It is my goal to move students towards complex texts that more beautifully and carefully handle truth, but I try hard not to be snobbish about literature. One of the best dialogues I've had in a high school English class was about Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee. There is freedom in the willingness to discuss true things wherever they might be found.
Good discussion is predicated on comprehension, but I refuse to believe that because a student isn't able to comprehend the greatest works of Western literature yet, they should be shut out of discussion. Socratic dialogue is not an "AP" thing; it's a human thing. I'd rather discuss The Outsiders with a class, than hand-hold them through lessons on Jane Eyre, Paradise Lost, or Shakespeare. We do both, engaging in dialogue and increasing literacy, because both are important, but I am always aware of the injustice of shutting students out of discussion due to low literacy.
3. Voice my own questions.
I try to only ask questions that I have (or questions students have). First, students can spot a fake question a mile away. Second, asking a question that I don't know the answer to keeps me honest. It prevents me from guiding the conversation to the answer I want, and it can train me to get used to the discomfort of open-ended conversation. Finally, it models the courage that I want my students to have as they approach discussion.
4. Throw out the lesson plan when we’re talking about something good.
Flexibility is a vital skill in the classroom. It's so hard to set up discussion, to build confidence and rapport, and to ask the right question that when everything works out and students are talking, I almost never shut it down. No matter what my lesson plan says or what we're "supposed" to accomplish that lesson, I let the conversation go. There is no substitute for students engaged in dialogue with each other and a text, struggling with an idea. I remind myself (and the students when they ask) that this is the real stuff. The test-prep and the grammar lessons are necessary, but this conversation about difficult ideas, this conversation about what is true and what is false--this is what's important.
P.S. This post is written to educators, obviously, but many of these small steps are true for fledgling small groups as well. When discussion is dragging, ask follow up questions. Don't feel the need to start your book group with War and Peace when The Hobbitmight actually be a better training ground. Don't ask "smart" questions; ask questions that you actually are wondering about. And don’t keep your eye on the clock.
*As a proponent of public education, it behoves me to point out that this is not true of all public schools, merely the schools where I’ve been called to teach.