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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.
I find no greater joy than feeling like I am trusted.
It’s why marriage can be so glorious. There is another human being who trusts you enough to spend every day of their life with you.
It’s why it feels really good when a friend offers to loan you their car. They are saying I trust that you will take care of something I paid a lot of money for and need in my day-to-day life.
It’s why I love being a dad. There is a tiny human being who relies on me for his survival, and so he digs his head into my shoulder when he is shy or scared.
He trusts that I can take care of him.
We want to be trusted.
There was a boy in my class who had been bullied for years. He is small and quiet, and in middle and high school, this draws a bullseye on your back. So the boy grew used to this at the beginning of each school year.
It took about 3 days for someone to take aim at him. This boy had spent the last couple weeks feeling miserable every moment of the day. A bully following him around, whispering mean things in his ear, cowering this boy into silence, and making him hate his time in school more and more.
Finally this boy had enough, and said that he wanted to leave our school because of this bully.
I was pissed.
I wanted the bully to leave our school instead. I wanted to scare him into repentance.
Call him out in front of the class.
Make him feel a sliver of the pain he made this other boy feel.
I wanted to call his parents and make the bully confess his sins in front of them.
I wanted to make him write a 5 page paper about why bullying is bad, along with a plan of how he was going to stop.
I wanted to make him watch a 60 Minutes episode about teen suicide in America.
I wanted to get him suspended for 10 days, and make him spend the rest of the semester trying to get caught up.
I wanted to make an example out of him, so every potential bully at our school would know what happens when you intentionally hurt someone who does not deserve it.
I kind of wanted to make him cry, and show him that he’s not as tough as he thinks he is.
I wanted to get revenge for my 12 year-old self.
I wanted to call him a bully.
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Instead I asked him if he had a second to talk outside of the classroom.
I said, “_______, I need your help.
“Okay Mr. Muir?”
“We have a kid in our class, _______, who is not liking it here. He’s not making friends, and not everyone has been that nice to him.”
“I’ve already noticed that you’re a leader, and people follow you and look up to you. I was hoping you could take this boy under your wing for me. Be his friend. Protect him. I know everyone else will do the same if they see you do it. Can I trust you with this?”
I watched him walk back into the room and sit in his seat in a sort of wonder. He looked off into space for a minute, then I saw his gaze move to the small boy on the other side of the room.
The next day I came into my classroom to see both boys sitting together, talking and smiling.
I didn't get my revenge. But this was better.
Image credit: wokandapix CC
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.
Sir Ken Robinson once said in a TED Talk that "Teaching is creative profession."
I love that line.
Because of systems in place, as well as cultural stereotypes, and Mrs. Crabapple from The Simpsons, it is very easy to believe that teachers are just walking textbooks, or playback machines, or mindless dictators (ok, maybe I can be a little dictatorish sometimes). But these descriptions are limiting, because at the heart of teaching is creativity.
Think about the amount of creativity that goes into your own personal classroom management, and the way you have learned to improvise in different situations in your classroom.
How you’ve developed a look that can make bullies tremble.
And another one that can send a child home prouder than they have ever been. Or think about the creativity it takes to talk an angry parent down or to turn a classroom into a safe haven for your students.
Consider the fact that on paper, literature, geometry, foreign language, and photosynthesis can look pretty boring. However, teachers know these subjects are far from that, and they have the unique ability to make students realize it.
Teaching takes immense creativity, and you can pour that same ingenuitive spirit and inspiration to make learning come alive for students. It’s about flexing those creative muscles to make learning engaging. Introduce authenticity into projects and lessons your class takes part in. Make it part of your planning time to brainstorm new ways to make class relevant. Like any other artist, give yourself scheduled time to sit down and do nothing but brainstorm.
Teachers have to get away from the mindset that school is just about delivering content and using our time to plan solely on how to deliver it. Content is important, and can still be a major target in our classrooms, but rarely is it enough to motivate a student to work hard and with passion. Passion and work ethic from most students must be derived from somewhere else. Otherwise, you have to become comfortable with a bunch of students who are satisfied with getting C’s and doing just enough to get by.
The other option is to inject authentic conflict into our classrooms. Make the time students spend with you every day be full of purpose. Foster an environment that makes kids wake up in the middle of the night with an idea to solve the problem your class has presented them with.
Conflict is good.
We want conflict.
And to create real conflict in your classroom just takes a degree of creativity.