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I think we sometimes take for granted the skill it takes to take part in good discussion. In a world inundated with technology, distractions, Pokemon Go, odd presidential campaigns, and all of the things that modern society has created to take our attention and divert it to bright screens in the palm of our hands, good discussion can be rare. And while these technologies are not necessarily a negative aspect of our world (except maybe the campaign), they do not always facilitate rich conversation; spirited debates; intellectually stimulating discussion- some of the best defining features of what it means to be human.
Many of the high school students who enter my class obviously know how to talk and communicate, but are not always equipped to exchange ideas, or allow a differing opinion to shape their current beliefs. Every school year, the first times that I try to facilitate good discussion about contentious topics, the discussion usually turns into a debate, and those involved in the class discussion develop a single motive to “win” or convince the other side to share their same belief (It’s like internet-comment boards in real life). The loudest student in the room is heard the most, feelings can sometimes be hurt, and the timid students usually shrink into the corners of the room and add nothing to the conversation. Emotion dominates the time together, and actual discussion does not occur.
I expect this at the beginning of the year, because I know that many of the students in my room do not know how to discuss. They’ve been trained by a digital culture that is all about anonymity and one-way online conversations. Many have also been cultivated by a school culture that values compliance and silence, allowing rare speaking opportunities that only serve to demonstrate correct answers. We are not born with an innate ability to listen to other’s ideas, and consider them as valid if they differ from our own. This is a skill that must be taught.
From the earliest of the years in school sitting in a circle in kindergarten, to lectures halls at a university, I don’t think it is ever too late for students to undergo conversation-training. It starts with practice in listening.
One of my favorite discussion methods in my classroom is called a Samoan Circle. It is a great method for students to learn the skills needed to listen and discuss. This is how it works:
Place 4 chairs in the middle of your classroom, and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion (about whatever topic you’d like), but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the 4 chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for four students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.
Every time I do a Samoan Circle, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Samoan Circles are a great, controlled way for students to start developing excellent discussion skills.
There are many other great practices to facilitate rich discussion, and I would recommend experimenting with as many as you can. Even the quietest and most reserved student can learn the art of conversation, and your intentionality can help them attain these skills that they will use the rest of their lives.
In 1970, a man named Edward Packard was telling his daughters a bedtime story about a character he made up named Pete. Every night, Pete would encounter different adventures on an isolated island, and Packard would make up an adventure for Pete on the spot. But one night, Edward Packard ran out of things for Pete to do. If you are a parent, you know exactly what this guy was going through.
So with no ideas for what Pete was going to do next, Packard asked his daughters what the character did. Each daughter came up with a different idea for Pete's adventure, and so Packard came up with a different ending for each them.
Choose Your Own Adventure books were born.
And it went on to become one of the bestselling children’s books during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, selling over 250 million copies. The magic of Choose Your Own Adventure is that the reader gets to become a participant in the story. Rather than just absorbing the information, one gets to have a say in what information is presented to them.
Having your students interact with your story, your lecture, is vital. Direct instruction does not mean that the teacher is the only one who gets to talk. Teachers have to create opportunities for students to join the story and determine how it gets told. There are a number of ways to create pauses in your speaking and allow students to interact. You, as a teacher, have to create space for students to join the learning in the classroom. Hour-long lectures are boring and ineffective, but a concise lecture with breaks that allow your students to join in an interact are not.
Have you ever stood at the front of your class and felt a vibration, an energy pulsing through the room that made you stop thinking about assessments, or parents, or lesson planning, or Language Arts, or anything else that comes with being a teacher, but instead just watched what was happening with wonder?
Every now and then, when my students are working on a project that moves them beyond the walls of my classroom and school, and into a place they haven't been before; a place that has a problem needing to be solved, I get to feel this vibration. I'm talking about when students don't need their teacher to work, or grades to make them sweat. They don't need the fear of punishment to stay on task, because staying on task means getting closer to solving this problem.
I love watching a group of students' eyes light up when a group member has a great idea. I also love watching a group of students get into a heated argument, and they figure out themselves how to cool it down. I love when I go to tell a kid to quit texting in class, and he shows me his cell phone, and on it is the phone number of a manufacturer he is trying to contact for the project.
I love hearing kids tell me they could not fall asleep the night before because they couldn't stop thinking about how they want to edit their documentary about WW2 veterans. Or when my principal comes into my room because she hears a lot of noise, and finds kids huddled around laptops and poster board deep in discussion.
I love that a group of my students impressed a local company so much during a project they worked on with them, that this group of students were offered paid internships at this company.
I love that I don't have to lecture all day everyday, and print out hundreds of worksheets to bore my students with. And I love how my students aren't confined to my classroom during class, and that they can be trusted to work hard in the hallway or outside.
I love that I teach at a school that is a choice for students to go to, and my school starts at 6:55 in the morning, and yet I hardly hear a word of complaint from students who wake up at 5am to catch the bus.
I love having chairs that roll in my room, and I love seeing a kid who was scared to death to speak in front of 5 of his peers in September, but has no problem giving a speech in front of 400 in May.
I love that teaching is way different than I thought it was going to be. And I love that I love my job, and this is due in large part because I teach in an environment that embraces project based learning.
We did a new project this year in my World History/ELA class.
And it was glorious.
But first a little background.
In 1856, the country of Germany began invading a very small kingdom in East Africa called Burundi. They started a century of pillaging the land, harsh violence, political upheaval, and outright stealing of Burundi’s natural resources. They took over this land with overwhelming force, and caused enemy tribes who had very clear boundaries with each other to share space.
It’s called imperialism, and it’s in my state standards for high school World History.
When Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, it looked very much as it does today: locked in civil war and in a constant state of poverty. A direct result of imperialism.
This happened all over Africa, and it is a contributing factor as to why many African nations are impoverished. And when nations like the United States sends money, food, and unpurchased clothing from thrift stores- a small Band Aid is applied to a large gash.
As a teacher in a project based learning school, I wanted to find a way for my students to learn this history content in a way that is more real and authentic than me telling this story or having them read it on Wikipedia.
I had a woman named Trace, who spent the past several years working in Burundi, come and speak to my class about what she did there. She worked for a bank called Turami that gives micro loans to citizens of Burundi. Groups of up to 30 people come together asking for a loan, say 15,000 dollars, and the money is divided equally among the group, each person receiving 500 dollars a piece. But the kicker is, they pay back the loan together rather than individually. If someone is short one month, the rest of the group pitches in and helps with the payment.
This money is used to start small businesses: goat farming, brick making, clothing companies, etc.. And 90 percent of the loans are paid back in full. This is not a band aid for the poverty in Burundi, this could be what heals the wound caused by imperialism.
And when my students heard Trace’s story, they wanted to be a part of it. And so when Trace left that morning, the class did some brainstorming. And my principal ended up loaning me 300 dollars. My students got into groups of four, and I loaned each group 10 dollars. Their goal was to multiply that money into as much money as possible. And at the end of the unit, they would pay the loan back, and we would take the profits and invest it in an actual group of villagers in Burundi applying for a micro loan through this really cool website called KIVA.ORG.
After signing and notarizing loan agreements (by an actual notary public), the students formed companies, and began holding bake sales, selling soda and lattes in the hallway, making bracelets, knitting scarves, buying chocolate and selling it on the weekends at local bowling alleys, and they spent a portion of their earnings on more supplies to generate more income.
I had one group that took their 10 dollars and bought a bag of paintballs. This group went door to door in their neighborhoods telling neighbors that they could shoot them with the paintball gun for every 5 dollars they donated.
They made 70 bucks! You can’t make this stuff up!
At the end of the unit, the whole group (the class) paid back the loan in full, and we had a profit of over 700 dollars.
700 dollars made by 14 year old freshmen. Now this is some history class.
And using KIVA, we loaned that money to a group in Burundi. And when it gets paid back, we are going to loan it to another group of people.
My students are thinking outside themselves. They weren't sacrificing their break times in between classes, or their evenings and weekends so they could earn a grade. I actually didn't grade this at all. They worked hard because they wanted to be a part of Burundi. They had a deeper understanding of imperialism than most textbooks can give, and they wanted to do something with this knowledge. This project gave them an opportunity to empathize and act.
That is part of the beauty of project based learning. The subject content is still there, but it is absorbed rather than reflected. It's felt rather than just heard.
Oh, and it's a lot of fun.