Skipping Stones: Student Ownership and Authentic Discussions
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.
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:
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.