While ostensibly serving as a moderator of student discussion, many teachers dominate the conversation. Sometimes the teacher will speak for a paragraph and students respond with one word or short phrases. In a way this is a presentation in the guise of collective work. (Whenever students are trying to guess what you have in mind, that’s what’s going on.)
Discussion leading is a skill. A strong opening question or a short list of questions can be prepared ahead of time. Practice ‘the elaborative question technique’ in which you work with responding students to help them enlarge upon what they are saying. Consider phrases such as: “Could you say a little more about . . . ? What do you mean by . . .? Could you say that again, maybe in another way? How does your view differ from the previous speakers?” Allow students time to say what they have to say before moving on.
Practice silence. After raising a provocative question, pause to allow time for thoughtful consideration. At least wait a literal minute or two before rushing to fill the void. Consider it a `pregnant pause.’
Encourage learners to listen to each other. Changing the configuration for discussion is helpful: consider the critics circle architecture for response to yesterday’s assigned topic. Design techniques to move away from teacher-student-teacher-student rhythms. Encourage students to build on the ideas of others and to clarify their differences.
Occasionally intervene to refocus discussion. Some people like to talk even when they have nothing (more) to say.
For one complete day, actively practice the elaborative question technique whenever you are engaged in conversation with anyone. How successful were you in getting others to broaden and develop their points. What else did you discover?
Opportunities for dialog also exist in written exchanges. It is immensely important when engaging in written dialog not to turn it into an editing session.
The Journal was not only a ‘happy accident’ for English teachers, but it is also available to most every subject area in some form.
You can respond in the margins to ideas and feelings conveyed by the writer or reply afterwards with an inserted page. In either case respect for the individual is enhanced and a thoughtful dialog begun that can broaden over time.
Many teachers do something similar when responding to written tests. But the assessment role has differences from the enhancing and supporting role and as a result modifies the tone of the exchange.
Journaling is an activity of a special kind: a written dialog with more thoughtfulness than the modern cell phone exchange allows. I suspect it is because of the busy-ness of keyboard entering and a very fast, unreflective age.
The Journal also makes it possible to choose carefully selected passages for presentation to the class. Comments on the topic raised can offer wide-ranging opportunities for broader exchange.
In-class writing can be expedited as well – either cued by a topic presented to all for written response or by permitting individuals time to shape and more carefully word ideas before offering them aloud.
Construct a dialog journal exchange with a person of your choice. Write on your own and then invite the other person to respond. Comment on the experience:
“Pass” and the Power of Permission
A powerful tool in the teacher’s toolbox is the willingness to demonstrate respect for the students as private and particular persons, who may or may not be willing to respond when we’d like them to. This matter comes up more often than we might expect. Perhaps we are moderating class discussion and we choose a person to whom we direct a question. “What do you think Johnny? Have you ever run into a character like Huckleberry Finn? “ seems mild enough, and yet on this day, phrased this way, JJ may just not want to respond. When this occurs, and it will, I recommend some way to allow this silent rejection. To ease the tension, try giving express permission to simply say, “Pass.” At which point move along, with nothing more said.
A similar event may occur in a written response to an at-home work pursuit. Perhaps we thought each person in the class would offer something but didn’t. Was it because they didn’t do the work? Didn’t want to explore the idea? or something else?
And even in a dialog journal in which in the name of writing with power, of getting the words down on paper at least as a rough draft, students can be given express permission to staple pages together or in some similar manner signal that what was written there was private and personal. Invasiveness isn’t the point, and this simple technique will bear fruit over time, once the students find out you mean it.
Of course it may get too simple an escape from participating at all in the class, and you may choose to encourage more active practice by adding points for well put commentary, or requesting that students find ways to join the discussion when they feel they can.
[Once upon a time the starting Quarterback on the college football team was taking Composition I, and I had chosen to include presentation as part of the grading process. I’d ask for volunteers at first but later in the course made sure I asked everyone. But each time the Quarterback would shake his head and I’d move on. As his written work was making progress, he passed the course, but I suspected it left a sour taste in both of our mouths. I thought for sure that by the next semester he would be taking Comp II with a different Professor, but he was back, and when the first chance to read aloud came up, so did his tentative hand. And the next time and the next. Eventually he was at the dais when he read and afterwards a classmate asked him what had changed. He said he was annoyed with himself, angry that he could stand up to rushing linemen as few could, but not to the fear of reading in public, and he had decided that that simply would . . . not . . . do.]
Group Process is a high art and takes delicacy and awareness. Begin functioning like a moderator, clarifying the rules of participation for a designed experience with or without stating the underlying theme. As the activity unfolds, you observe. What you see forms the basis of ‘comments’ you make after the activity is over. Often these mirror the way participants did or did not respond to the challenge and serve as a kind of closure.
Who offered leadership? Who helped maintain the focus? Who did not contribute or allowed others to make decisions for them? Who may have undermined the group effort? Were there differences in the way men and women responded?
Beneath the observations is an attempt to concretely reflect patterns of interaction, some of which enhance and some of which obstruct substantial communication. It is essential that the ‘observations’ be offered with tact and in a tone of suggestion not judgment.
Allow individuals to respond in any way they wish, even if they react defensively. Consider asking: can you express your view in a tone that doesn’t make it a contradiction or negative comment on what others said.
Observe a group at an activity. Note possible process comments here:
Sometimes lessons are designed in which (for a while) the educator has no assigned function.
These offer opportunities to observe in a way you cannot usually do when performing other functions. Be perspicacious; practice shifting attention; see the whole class or zoom in on an individual or a small interacting sub-group.
[I found this technique particularly informative. When I was supervising student teachers I would often chose a desk in the front corner of the room, turned to mostly face the class while listening to the teacher.]
Try it out in two ways. See if you can get permission to observe a confident colleague and do your observation not as a critic but as an observer of class dynamics. If it’s possible, get together shortly afterwards and discuss it.
Create a lesson once in a while, where you do not have any assigned function and see what you learn about the social dynamics in your own classes.