I walked into the classroom and immediately felt welcome. The music playing the background gave off a relaxing, accepting vibe. I sat down in my rolling-chair, took out my notebook and a pencil, and began reading the board. That day we were going to analyze Get What You Give by the New Radicals. A student was asked to pick out a talking piece of his choice that would be passed around as each person would speak. We first began the discussion by asking a general question that most everyone could answer, for instance "What is your favorite ice cream flavor?" Then the first student stated their answer and passed the talking piece to the person next to them. Doing this not only made the students comfortable sharing, but also helped them become comfortable with each other. We then started with general thoughts about the song, again, in a sequential order just to help each student gather their thoughts and opinions on the song. Once each student shared their surface level thoughts on the song, we jumped into the non-sequential order. At first, it was the same students sharing their opinions, but slightly altering them each time they shared. The comments would refer to prior knowledge and educated inferences. After about three minutes, different voices began to jump in. Some of which sparked the conversation into a completely direction. One student brought up the possibility that the artist was talking about his life only, which caused a large debate. Taking a look around the room, it was apparent how engaged each student was whether it was taking notes of what other kids were saying, or sharing opinions of their own. No student was wrong as long as they could back up their opinion. Some kids related the song to a motivational statement to take charge of their lives and fight through whatever they were going through, others didn’t see the purpose of the song and thought it was meaningless. All opinions were accepted as long as the student backed it up. Many students even began to relate the song to real life scenarios and started making impressive connections. Most people forgot that the teacher was even present in the classroom. After about forty-five minutes the teacher finally jumped in to close the discussion. As
students were disappointed that it was over, it only made them more anxious for the next class's discussion.
If executed properly, discussions can be a wonderful thing. Discussions not only lead to amazing connections that would never be thought of while doing a worksheet, but also prepare students for the future by strengthening their communication skills along with their collaboration skills, "Students need to learn how to be part of a democracy" (Adolescent Literacy, 2007).
To start of a discussion, incorporate a talking piece for the students to use while speaking. A talking piece is an object a student needs to be able to talk. It should be something like a stuffed animal so it can be tossed around with no harm, unique and colorful, and nothing any student cannot handle. A talking piece not only represents an object the students need to have to speak, but it also unifies them and brings them together. This is because if a student is not comfortable sharing or feels he/her will be judged if they do share, seeing another person give their opinion helps that student feel more secure. Instead of just raising their hand for the teacher to call on them, the students feel more comfortable if another student were to "call on them."
It is equally important to make sure all of the students can see each other (preferably be in a circle) so no one feels hidden or not important, "It is extremely difficult for a students to learn to trust if they are all treated equally." (Adolescent Literacy, 2007). Traditional rows in the classroom often leads to students not caring as much about the class. This is because students feel that they do not matter if the teacher treats them exactly like every other student. Circle discussions work well because they are simple, efficient, and comfortable. A circle can be made with chairs very easily and does not cause stress. When the discussion is in a circle, it makes things easier from passing the talking piece, to seeing raised hands of students that
want to speak next. Lastly, a circle is more relaxing and comfortable to students because it does not remind them of the classes they despise (rows, endless notes, and teachers that do not care).
Allowing each student to share in the beginning may seem pointless as if it was an icebreaker, however, it creates a more comfortable and less awkward environment for the students. Simply asking "What is your favorite ice cream flavor?" or "where is your favorite vacation destination?" Will help some students realize that sharing is not so bad after all. Not only that, but it also makes each student feel that their opinion and thoughts are just as important as anyone else's. This enables the discussion to be much more interactive, and allows students to bring more to the table.
As a teacher, it is necessary to be more of a spectator than a leader during a classroom discussion. Start the discussion by asking a question with no specific answer. Also, the question should not be able to be answered with a yes or a no. "It's not the answer that enlightens but the question." (The Essential Don Murray, 2009). This helps students dig deeper to make more independent connections, as opposed to the teacher giving the students the answer and then simply asking "do you agree or disagree." Once the discussion begins to lift off, the teacher can put the discussion in the students hands. Once this is executed, the students feel more comfortable and equal to each other.
Knowing when to close a discussion can be difficult. It is much more preferred that it is ended too early than too late. This is because if the discussion is ended when there is still more to be said, it will make students look forward to the next class discussion, as opposed to becoming bored once they realize the discussion has been going on for far too long. A solid discussion length is anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes long. This is because for most students, it is difficult to stay locked in for a long period of time. Also, a discussion will tend to get boring to students, after all, it does require a large amount of very thoughtful thinking.
According to a freshman student, there are discussions that happen occasionally throughout the school such as Socratic Seminars. However, that student claimed all of the seminars he had attended had been run poorly, meaning the teacher forced the students to have a strict script, and only be able to speak at certain times to say certain things. A discussion or seminar will be better without grading off of a rubric. Rubrics force students to avoid saying some things, and say other things they do not necessarily agree with. This being said, discussions are fantastic when the students feel comfortable, know their opinion is wanted, and are allowed to speak their mind.
It is hard for students to get to love school these days due to the large amount of work that is unnecessary, and all of the note-taking within core classes. With those two majors negatives in students minds, a negative connotation has been assigned to "school" while it should be a place where learning is what those students choose to make it. Discussions are a perfect way to incorporate independence, collaboration, connection, and creativity all into one lesson. Students create strong bonds with each other including the teacher, which is also beneficial to the students mental health, "Young adolescents mental health correlates to teachers and other mentors" (Adolescent Literacy, 2007). With that being said, a teacher has the power to change a student's life. When a teacher can reach out individually to students, that teacher becomes trusted immediately. This is where discussions are extremely favorable. The atmosphere of a classroom is dependent on what students make it. It is extremely obvious to tell whether or not a student enjoys being in a teacher's class or not. If students are aware that a teachers classroom is a place where they can be themselves at all times and come to know that everyone will respect their opinions, then the class only becomes better. Whether a teacher is discussing songs, poems, or anything quite frankly, students that are comfortable will not be afraid to dig deep and be honest. Many times these discussions lead to
deeper and stronger connections that mold the debate into a meaningful, trustworthy event in the students lives. Discussions will only benefit a class, never damage it. All it takes is effort from both ends, respect, and trust.
Beers, G. Kylene, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007. Print.
Murray, Donald Morison, Thomas Newkirk, and Lisa C. Miller. The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook/Heinemann, 2009. Print.