Teaching Class Participation

My class had a scheduled visitor today to provide a subject for a lesson in collecting oral histories.  My class did a pretty good job of developing a working list of all the people who interview and collect information from people: historians, policemen, private detectives, journalists, lawyers, social scientists, writers, public officials, census bureau reporters… They developed a protocol for asking an interview subject to explain who he or she was, and what they were doing there.

Then the guy didn’t show up.  A colleague of mine has already rescheduled his visit, but it left me with half the class to talk with.  So I got them started on what I plan to do for the next quarter:

“OK, kids, what makes for a good class discussion?”

We developed a pretty-good list for what good class discussions are like:

“Good” class discussions are physically calm, without interruptions.  One person speaks at a time, but everyone participates. The discussion is on-topic, but “on-topic” has a somewhat loose definition; talking about your own pets is off topic when the subject is the American Revolution, but your relationship with your parents might be on topic when discussing America breaking away from Britain.  The conversation has to be informative and focused.

WHat about bad classrooms?

“Bad” class discussions are physically rambunctious, filled with random interruptions, and not very focused.  There are lots of side conversations, and people are disrespectful about letting other people speak.  There’s often more than one conversation at a time, and one or more students may be drumming on the table.  There can be physical or slapstick behavior, as well, which distract from the learning.

I described the methods that teachers use to keep a running record of such discussions — a grade book like a clock face, where every person’s name appears, and strings of symbols and lines connecting the people’s places around the circle to show relationships and the flow of conversation…

For a long time, I have been disappointed by the nature of discussions in my classroom. This goes back to my old school, and it’s not just in the last couple of years.

But I decided over Thanksgiving break: why not actually teach my students, and train them, to be great participants in class discussions?  Why not help them define what a good class conversation is, and then give them tips, techniques and skills to actually communicate in class?  Why not teach them the mental framework to be great speakers and great listeners, and then give them opportunity to practice?

So that’s what I’ll be doing this coming quarter, up through the end of January or so.  I’ll be teaching kids to be class participants, of the kind that I want to have: people who can speak in specific terms and real events in history, who ask questions and wait for their peers to answer them, who ask each other questions, and make arguments and assertions based on opinions which are rooted in fact.

I told them this required me to be more of a moderator, and less of a lecturer; more of a record-keeper and less of a storyteller.  It would require them to be more active in the learning process, and be more deliberate about absorbing the stories and data of history, and careful about recalling and reciting information.

This will be interesting.

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