By Daniel Summers
I’ve been asking myself a lot lately: Why are we so afraid to talk with our students? We are fine talking to our students. Lectures are our forte. I, for one, can talk for hours about why the wallpaper was yellow and why waking up as a cockroach isn’t as bad as discovering your father never loved you deeply. We are equally fine letting students talk. Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ‘small group discussion’ or an impassioned class debate? I’d argue, most teachers are very comfortable with using ‘talk’ as a learning tool in their classroom. So why are we so hesitant to talk with our students. I’m referencing genuine talk, the sort of conversation that is free to go in wild directions, to be influenced by the entire environment and mood of the speakers.
Let me pause for a second. I get on tangents in class. I get off topic…often. I’m not defending it, I’m just being honest. I realize that losing yourself in the whims of a young child or gulp a teenager can derail a learning objective quickly and disastrously. That is not what I am advocating in this blog.
Instead, I’m advocating for weaving actual time into your lessons for genuine discussion–free discussion about various topics.
There is a wonderful book by Thomas McCann, Transforming Talk into Text. In it, he gives dozens of strategies and examples for building confidence and skill in writing through the conversations of students. After reading the book I became determined to hold more discussion in class. It would be an experiment. Could I improve my student’s writing with entire lessons built around discussion? The trouble was, the discussions always derailed. We would begin having a multi-perspective conversation about self-driving cars, or industrialization in developing countries when suddenly we would be talking about a student’s favorite cereal. We lost entire instructional days because I had no idea how to keep the focus on the topic. Human nature just doesn’t allow most people to focus so intently on one idea over an extended conversation. Few things are more terrible and awkward than a forced conversation.
I was close to abandoning my experiment when I thought: Wait? Why do we need to stay on topic? Sure, I wanted them to use their verbal ideas as evidence in their arguments, but those usually played out quickly. It was in the exploration of the little ideas the less tangible thoughts that would blurt out randomly that my class found enjoyment. Why did I fight so hard against the organic nature of conversing? Was I worried that open and unstructured discourse wasn’t meeting a content standard or a learning objective? Well, yes. But, risk is what creates luck, and so when I sat down to write my lesson plans for the following Wednesday I wrote Discussion (Free). I normally place a topic in the parentheses.
Here is what I learned:
Human relationships are the foundation of reading and writing. We tell our students to consider the audience when composing a story or argument. In doing so we treat the word “audience” like a vocabulary term rather than a connotatively familiar concept. The audience is who you are speaking with, that is all. If a student uses terms, allusions, references, or jargon that I am unfamiliar with I have an opportunity to ask for clarification. I make note of the moment. I use it to teach the audience later. Being able to reference actual conversations as examples of what students do well or can improve on has never put a single student into a bored stupor.
Rapport matters. I mean it really does. A student simply doesn’t learn if they don’t feel trust and kindness in a classroom. They just don’t. We aren’t just in the room to teach content. Actually having free conversations for twenty to thirty minutes once a week gave me insight into the lives, hobbies, and dreams of my students. I lost all my excuses. I could reach every student by talking to them. So I knew every student was reachable. No more: “I can’t get Johnny to pay attention.” That was an excuse. The truth was, I didn’t know Johnny.
We are always learning. Having sustained and meaningful conversations is a skill. Sadly, it is a skill which we rarely teach in k-16 education. An open and elaborate discussion is a part of the language arts toolkit. It is our most common form of meaningful conversation. Why not teach it? Why not practice it?
It’s good for the mental health of students. Most students simply don’t have enough minutes in their day where they are capable of having a free conversation. In my experience, the free conversations that occur in my classroom are contemporary and relevant. I think we have a fear that, given an opportunity, students will devolve into purely juvenile topics. Given the freedom to just talk a little, most students will start asking me questions about current events or happenings in the school. Rarely do we end up discussing Pokemon or Vine videos. But if we do it is okay, because…
The students are already critical analyzers of culture. They have all the skills we want them to have. They can critically read almost any aspect of popular culture and political happenings. They can formulate logical and coherent arguments. They just don’t know how to focus them and make them more succinct. What they need most is guidance on how to structure their thoughts and ideas when writing.
I plan for a discussion every Wednesday and Friday in my classes. They last about twenty minutes. I don’t label it as anything for the students. (I don’t say” “It’s discussion Wednesday”, or “Freetalk Friday!) I let them think that it is organic. Although, eventually they catch on. We just talk. I start out by asking how their day is going and then I just never get into content. It works. They want to talk. The entire time I am being honest with them about how lost I am or how impressed I am with the discussion. I consciously model a more structured and academic speaking style. Most importantly, I let myself enjoy just speaking to other humans.
It gets noisy sometimes, it gets derailed often. Sometimes the conversation fades. That is okay with me. I move on. I’m a teacher, plan B is ready to go. But I leave every week with a collection of my student’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and soft skills. I use this data to influence future plans and assignments.
I don’t know how we expect our students to give presentations and write complex essays when they rarely sustain basic conversations for seven hours a day one-hundred and eighty days out of the year. Many of my students get in pockets where they only speak and listen to people who appreciate the same things they do. I’d like to argue that isn’t okay. We strive to give them diverse texts and diverse writing genres, but we rarely take advantage of the diversity in our own room.
“WVCTE is wondering…” How long do you take to get to know your students? Do you teach discourse in your class? What methods do you use? “Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!”