Monday, October 17, 2016

Authentic Discussions

Skipping Stones: Student Ownership and Authentic Discussions
Mary Rizzo

When you are the first one to walk into a classroom in the morning, you get the same feeling you get when you are alone on a beach. This is a public space, yet right now, yours.  This place, familiar, timeless, and divine is a force, and it imposes serenity when it has your attention. This morning, with autumnal tree leaves rustling outside the windows, my classroom was an ‘alone on the beach’ space, and I decided to just be and observe. In this Zen state, I was watching the slow then swift, kind of seagull like entrance of my students.  

Generally, there is a happy feeling to that time before instruction begins. Students sit close together, and over their breakfast, they talk.  They look closely into one another’s eyes, speak with emotion and then react with widened eyes, tossed heads and giggles. The speaker makes eye contact with listeners, uses appropriate volume, and makes an important point. He or she is telling the story of something, or maybe they are discussing a shared experience. The listeners use attentive facial expressions, ask follow up questions and paraphrase.  Authentic Discussions. The phrase appeared in my mind like a screen-saver and jolted me from my observations and all that Zen jazz. But there was another element. The students were fully invested in their conversation, and this ownership is key to the authenticity. CPS Framework for Teaching domains 2b student ownership & 3b-authentic discussions, right?  This is how it looks, and students can do it when the content is relevant.


Here was my new challenge: Students engaging in authentic discussions around the content under study. Imagine a stone skipping across water. To get a good skip, the skipper has to get the right rock and tossing technique, and then let the stone fly. Accordingly, a teacher with the right content and process can achieve a great discussion. One launch of the stone, brings about two distinct ripples in the surface of the classroom, student driven learning and authentic discussions. The first ripple (2b) is the student ownership piece. A teacher has to set a culture in which students assume responsibility for high-quality work. This opens up the space for the second ripple (3b), the discussion.

My first try (no time like the present, I’m trying it this week):

After 3 weeks of Doug Fisher's Power Writing I noticed a lot of run-on sentences in student work, so I decided to address it with a kinesthetic activity called Word People . I added some follow up work that included students working in pairs to generate sentences using subordinating and coordinating conjunctions.  This activity did result in many student pairs engaging in conversations around conjunctions.  As you can see, students assumed responsibility for high-quality work. Notice how carefully they crafted mini-stories out of their sentences on the example below:
Doug Fisher            

Power Writing Video from My Classroom


However, some pairs decided to divide up the work (“you do coordinating and I’ll do subordinating”) and avoided talking.  Well kids, I get it.  You’re all about efficiency, I know.  However, I’m in this gig for the long haul, and I’ll be right back with something you can’t get around, and here’s why:  You really need to practice being able to talk about content in a meaningful and productive way.  Your futures depend on it.

Here is the provocative truth that many of us struggle with: Increasingly, the student conversation about content is more important than the knowledge of content. In this example, run-on sentences are relatively easy to fix, and if students aren’t sure, they can google it.  But engaging in a discussion about run-on sentences is an experience that builds the “people skills” mentioned above. One must have the courage and confidence to assert a (text based) point.
“We should use ‘since’ and a comma….”
Next, one must listen to a peer agree, question the assertion, or counter with their own assertion.
“We could use a comma and ‘and’ too...”
Now, the pair has to evaluate which is the better choice, use it, and explain why.  
Developing collaborative and evaluative fluency has far greater quality of life implications than simply knowing how to fix up a sentence. Since the speaking and listening standards must take center stage, I pushed on, and found a “split proof” activity.

Students worked in pairs to rewrite a paragraph that contained run-on sentences.  I emphasized that their choices were an opportunity to infuse the passage with their voice.  We generally think that expressing ourselves in writing means what we say, but it also means how we say it. “I love school, I love learning, and my teacher is nice” means something slightly different than, “Since my teacher is nice, I love school and I love learning.”  And in the end, both fix “I love school I love learning my teacher is nice.”

The key takeaway from this activity was to scrutinize the text and task to make sure the opportunities for authentic talk are rigorous.  Does the text demand conversation, meaning, are there more than one or two possible solutions? Does the task demand interaction, meaning, is it unsplittable?

My Second Try (I’m on to something, so I’m going to be more deliberate and find a specific strategy to put in my lesson plan): Put a Ring on It

Put a Ring on It is a great 3b resource because it ensures authenticity in that each small group of students receives a slightly different set of questions, and this prevents that phenomena where one particular viewpoint travels mysteriously throughout the whole group and minimizes diversity of thought and expression. This happened with one of my own children once, and the experience prompted some professional reflection on my part.

When my daughter was in kindergarten she brought home a paper she had written about how to make Thanksgiving dinner.  Her first sentence was, “Get a turkey and shoot him.”  I was alarmed because well, this just didn’t sound like my baby’s voice. I asked the teacher how my daughter came to say something that sounded so out of character. It turns out that the students had dictated their stories to her in front of the whole group, and after the first student started his paper that way, they all said the same.  This teacher could have raised her 3e (demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness) score by addressing this trend and prompting each student to find their unique voice when telling the story, but that is a blog for another day. The good news is that if you anticipate group speak, you can use Put a Ring on It as a structure to prevent it. 

Because we are five weeks into the school year, and have this necessary ELA structure in place, we just needed a quick review of the importance of providing text based evidence. But you can never assume this is understood, so, to reinforce this rule, I provided an example from a previous lesson. Additionally, I drew their attention to our previously agreed upon norms for discussions (see posters below).

I chose Dilemma VII from The Kohlberg Dilemmas as our text. First, students read the dilemma silently to themselves, and then worked in two small groups to create a summary using Somebody Wanted But So, which you can also find on the Knowledge Center in this strategy tool kit: . This is my embedded check for understanding.  Once students had correctly summarized the text, I knew they were ready to go on and discuss its complexities.  
Next, student groups were given envelopes containing note cards, and each note card had a question on it. They were to discuss the questions and then select one to present on a poster and then share their response with the whole group.

 The posters and share out sessions revealed that the student groups thought and talked uniquely and deeply about the content, and each group presented a unique voice in their responses.  The key take away here is that when students have compelling work, they are invested in producing high quality products. When the task is carefully planned to be text dependent and open ended, students speak meaningfully about the content. When the teacher is deliberate and plans well, student ownership and authentic discussions really glide across the water like a well skipped stone.


Third try (Authentic discussions must be embedded in instruction regularly): Amy Ellifritz’s Step by Step Socratic Seminar.

We teachers everywhere have been given a gift, and that gift is named Amy Ellifritz.  Amy devoted her 15-16 school year to mastering Socratic Seminar and authentic classroom discussions, and she documented her journey for the betterment of the rest of us. Amy made a series of four videos, which, along with supporting documents, guide you through implementing Socratic Seminar in your classroom.  The videos tell the story of Amy’s journey from novice to expert, and her students’ development into thoughtful participants in authentic conversations around content. Presented on the Knowledge Center, they are all you need to fully embed authentic conversations into your classroom routine. Visit “Step by Step Socratic Seminar” on the Knowledge Center, and you will be inspired.

With Amy’s guidance, I began Socratic Seminar around a new text, the poem, the break by the Chicago based poet, Nate Marshall . Prior to diving in, I did exactly what Amy did. I showed my students her exemplar video and used the accompanying video guide as I showed students an exemplar of what we were about to do. The exemplar’s link is embedded in Amy’s video 1, but it’s real easy:. I also took her advice about highlighting different questions so everyone had a designated share out point for the whole group session.  This ensured equity of voice from the get go.

Next, pairs of students read the poem together and answered Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) level 1 questions for clarity and to establish a basic level of comprehension. When it came time for discussion, I prompted the whole group with guiding questions. My students spoke about the poem with passion and urgency, which was a great start for Socratic Seminar.  At the end of video 2, Amy asks teachers to reflect on aspects of Socratic Seminar that need work.  Our growth area is in speaking to one another and building off each other’s comments to move the dialogue forward.  Students tended to speak to me, so the conversation looked like it was between me and each of them individually, forming the image of transmissions between a hub and satellites rather than having an organic and amoebic pattern of interactions between all members.  It looked much like Amy’s second video, in which Amy does a lot of talking and guiding.  This is natural, because Socratic Seminar is an ongoing ever building structure on which to hang the art of conversation.   

Here is a screenshot of Amy’s first video. You can see how she has created a highly polished and intuitive tutorial on Socratic Seminar.  Here is a screen shot of Amy’s strategy to ensure equity of voice:

And, here is how I was able to do the exact same thing using her resource files:


This experience convinced me that Socratic Seminar is essential to fostering authentic discussions around content during which students genuinely display highly respectful and text dependent interactions around content.  

Authentic discussions require fidelity, meaning they must occur frequently and include reflection and explicit feedback towards improving our interactions each time.  Additionally, like all best practices, they are deeply interwoven with complementary practices from framework domains 1 and 2.  A teacher must know her students to choose a compelling and relevant text.  What about this will speak to my students? She must also thoroughly know the content, meaning what about this text makes it worth study.  For instance in the break the poet elicits multiple meanings for the word break. We are going to talk about how such an ordinary word can be so powerful, ask what other words for which this might be true, make a list of them, and use them to create our own poetry using the break as a mentor text.

Authentic discussions can occur spontaneously or loosely as is the case with my first try around run-on sentences. However, to be sustained, authentic discussions require careful planning and a highly respectful and safe classroom culture.  Conversely though, they serve as support piers for others such as text dependency, demonstration of logical thought and constructing an argument.

As many teachers before me have discovered, good classroom practice is like a shoreline; strong enough to withstand the ceaseless waves, yet flexible and ever changing because the waves are the whole point. As teachers we return to that shoreline again and again, find well worn stones and launch them out into that beautiful expanse, and as the stones, carefully tossed, sail away from us, we watch the magic happen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014



We took the kids to see Godzilla today.  They loved it, mostly because they got to see a movie rated PG13 (they’re 8, nephew is 9).   Judging by our many trips to the lobby, they really weren’t so much engaged with what was on the screen, as with the entire theater experience, which is good, because I regret their seeing Godzilla.  When my daughter leaned over and said the words “good that he killed all those babies!” I started thinking and still can’t stop thinking about the movie that inspired that sentence.   

The basic plot is that supposedly there was an earthquake near a Japanese nuclear power plant (Janjira, the only power company evoked at all in the movie, and it is defunct about 10 minutes in), which triggered a meltdown and quarantine of the area.  One surviving scientist can’t get over it, and he pursues his theory that it was not a natural disaster but something else.  Turns out he was right.  It was an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) from something alive.  The pulse is repeating and getting stronger, so a repeat of the earthquake event is imminent. The ultimate EMP disrupts power.  All electric things go dead, even cars stop running.

Joe, the aged scientist and a Japanese scientist named Serizawa discover that a massive unidentified terrestrial organism (MUTO) is awakening, it eats nuclear power and waste, is hungry, and also is trying to signal a mate.  The MUTO emerges, Godzilla follows him.  The MUTOs search for more nuclear meals and his mate take him and Godzilla through Hawaii and towards Nevada.  Joe dies and his grown son takes over in the role of scientist who understands what is happening and how to stop it.  So, these MUTOs are after our nuclear power and waste, and they are Godzilla’s prey.  At this point, my daughter pointed out that the female had babies in her belly, which was uncomfortable for me.  Wait, what?  A pregnant female is the biggest menace in the movie? Cue heightened awareness and now mama is watching for subtext.

The military decides to attack the MUTOs with nuclear warheads, which doesn’t work several times, since the MUTOs just eat them.  The Japanese scientist, Serizawa, notifies everyone that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOs and will restore balance to the earth if just allowed to follow through.  The military hesitates a little too long to adopt this philosophy, attacking good Godzilla for a good while.  The lady MUTO lays her eggs underground, but the military, led by Joe’s son, firebombs them and burns them up.  Godzilla first kills the male MUTO and then the female.  Godzilla is knocked out for a while and then gets up and returns to the sea.

My most immediate concern is that no person, no American is being attacked or threatened.  These unidentified terrestrial organisms (just to see what happens, I’m leaving out massive) are just hungry.  They happen to eat nuclear power and waste, and it just so happens that US power companies have lots of that, so they are coming for it.  Since Godzilla has historically worked as an extended metaphor for fears, is it logical to see this as a metaphor for America’s xenophobic attitudes around immigration?  Yes, especially since the biggest menace, being a pregnant female, has laid her eggs on U.S. soil.  Luckily/sadly, as my sweet, innocent daughter pointed out, all the babies have been killed so we won’t face a “dreamer” dilemma around those MUTO babies in the future.

Now, to the unbearable memory of having to look at the profiles of my son and nephew as the glow of scene after scene of beautiful, godlike soldiers doing cool looking military things washed over them and they, unprotected, absorbed the cell changing rays that said; you could be a soldier!  Being a soldier is cool, if they are saving and protecting people.  But in Godzilla   they are not protecting people.  People are not being attacked at all.  The soldiers are protecting the interests of power companies (unless, in this movie utilities have been nationalized; there is no evidence either way). Nuclear power is sort of conflated with the U.S. in general in Godzilla, so we are supposed to just think of it as “ours” I guess.  Are we not to question the use of the lives of our most precious young people to defend nuclear power? Dying in battle is sold to little boys as the greatest thing you could do.  The troubling thing here is that the enely does not pose a direct threat to people.

Never is the existence of nuclear power questioned or alternatives posed and I guess that is okay, this is a Godzilla movie after all, and nuclear power is essential to the story.  So, this would be okay, but the movie goes just one step outside the realm of remaining neutral about our nuclear situation.  One scientist, I can’t remember which (Sally Hawkins?) lectures during the movie and tells us that radiation loving Godzilla is a vestige of life long ago, when the earth was very radioactive, much more so than it is today, suggesting that radiation is natural.  This is a convenient truth, right?  Maybe so, maybe when the planet was young it was radioactive, but the threat that radioactivity poses today is not the same thing.  Today, nuclear threats exist due to military paranoia, corporate greed, and the deregulation craze we are currently enduring.  It is definitely not natural, and we could take steps to minimize and eventually eliminate it.  That little blurring of the line, suggesting that this all is just the way that the earth is, is the tactic of climate change deniers.  It is just slipped in there to plant in our minds the idea that nuclear power is natural, just like climate change.  Human activity has had nothing to do with it. 

Next, I want to address the many children separated from their parents in the movie.  First, the young scientist’s son is separated from mom and dad during the nuclear plant crisis in 1999.  Next the protagonist’s young son is separated from his parents for much of the movie.  We also see a young boy separated from mom and dad on the train in San Francisco, and in Hawaii a little girl and her father are separated from the mother during the tsunami.  As manipulative and political as this movie is, this cannot be an accidental element.  American families get used to the idea; you will suffer for the causes of and convenience of the powers that be. 

Finally, just so you know America, the worst thing that could happen is a power outage.  The EMPs disrupt all power, even batteries.  The film maximizes the effect.   Over and over, we see the progression of lights going out and hear the powering down chunk chunk and silence that accompanies a total power outage.  The panicked faces, the screaming and running hordes, the paralyzed traffic, it is overwhelming and horrifying, and it inspires the soldiers to give their all.  These episodes function as mini-crises throughout the movie.  Like so many other contrived situations in Godzilla, this is a manipulation, because I can think of worse things than power outages; for instance, another Fukushima style nuclear incident or a nuclear or any other type of bomb.

I shouldn’t have brought such young kids to a PG – 13 movie, so I take full responsibility.  I just thought, well its Godzilla, it’ll be fun and how much damage can it do?  Turns out, it did a lot of damage.  The vilification of women and foreigners, the normalization of nuclear power, the sneak recruitment of bomb fodder, the lowering of expectations for quality of life, and all for what?  So that we accept, even become grateful for a world full of nuclear power and perpetually engaged in war to defend our sources of it. 

In the wake of the experience, I take comfort in three things: First, my kids, like so many out there are critical thinkers who will be able to read this movie for its subtext and analyze the heck out of it, when they are older and engaged in film study.   Second teachers have embraced Common Core and will churn out careful readers and writers who will critique and create all kinds of exciting films in the coming years.  We are in an educational renaissance that is real and exciting.  Third, I realize that as usual, I may have over-reacted, as the discussion in the back seat on the way home was; who would win, Godzilla or King Kong?  The twins’ dad chimed in with “Historically, King Kong wins that fight.”  I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have guessed that that was the answer, or that sweet Rick knew it.  But I’m comforted by the old school little kid perspective and apparently genuine deflection of subtext.