Things I Know 142 of 365: We can draw everyone into the conversation

I’m always up for a conversation. So long as it’s with someone else (and sometimes even with myself), a good conversation leads to me learning more.

And I really like learning.

Standing up to start my section of the keynote for the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s 21st Century School Design Symposium 2.0 today, I presented the audience with a slide devoid of title or name.

It read simply:

What do you want to know?

In the next line, I invited audience members to text their questions to the phone number on the screen or send a message to my twitter account.

The original plan was to follow the questions up later in the presentation and open my Google Voice account. Call it keynote formative assessment.

Due to some login issues, I wasn’t able to access my account while I was still on stage.

That was for the better.

Once I returned to my seat, I opened Google Voice and found several questions waiting.

“How do you run professional development to prepare SLA teachers for project-based teaching?”

“What do you use to clean your dry erase tables?”

“Any how-to tips for working with an odd BOE?”

In my 30 minutes, I hadn’t the time to speak directly and in a detailed way to the concerns each of the questions raised. If I’d attempted to do so, I would have missed the mark of what I was asked to speak about.

Still, each question shows at least the basics of curiosity surrounding the ideas that had been presented.

The texters were inquiring.

Any question worth asking is worth answering.

The same thing happens in my classroom. In fact, I’d wager the same thing happens in every classroom. Class discussion begins or the teacher asks what questions the students have, and the few noble souls pipe up.

Most of the time, it’s the same people. On particularly excellent days, other voices enter the mix.

Today, Google Voice helped me collect some of the voices and questions that would have gone unheard and unasked in class conversation. It was the tool for today, but it isn’t the only tool.

From time to time, when having a full class conversation around a text, I explain that my goal is to hear from all voices in the classroom. I explain the value I place on a plurality of ideas and that I’m genuinely curious as to what each student has to say.

When I asked today’s audience to share what they wanted to know, I was also genuinely curious.

In class conversations, I’ll often require students who don’t speak up in the physical spaces to share their thoughts (either a new idea or a reaction to a peer) on the class discussion board on MOODLE.

Those message board strands bear out some deeply thoughtful conversation.

That conversation is epically helpful to me as I attempt to understand each of the students in my charge and how they view the world.

Sometimes, I’ll jump in on the discussion board conversations. Other times, I’ll send a private e-mail in response.

Today, I sent a response to each text message I received. I might never hear from any of them again. I get that.

Still, when we’re banning and working to verbally diminish the power of new conduits of conversation in education, maybe it will serve as a reminder of the tools we have to draw more students of all kinds into the fray.

Things I Know 88 of 365: We’re about to have some great discussions

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the second half of the semester, I open my storytelling class to greater student choice and control. This could be intensely dangerous considering the class is populated with students with eyes fixed firmly on graduation.

I operate under the assumption greater choice and control will help make our class relevant.

The guiding questions for the assignment I rolled out today are simple:

  • What is a text you connect with strongly?
  • What causes that connection?
  • How can you help the class understand that connection?

I suppose anyone else in a class about story would collect a set of stories from the Western Literary Canon and proceed with the indoctrination.

They’ll have college for that.

My goal is more to work toward the type of deeply curious conversations about texts that will equip them with the tactics to pull apart those dusty canonical behemoths later on.

The assignment is simple:

  • Pick a text that means something to you. Prep a whole-class discussion that will help us all learn more about the text.
  • For the purposes of the assignment, I put myself in the role of Mr. Chase as English student rather than Mr. Chase as English teacher.

Students are responsible for preparing copies, online materials or video clips as necessary. They must also prepare pre- and during-reading activities to prep their peers (and me) for at least 30 minutes discussion.

Last year’s initial launch of this assignment brought some amazing moments.

For almost an entire class period we debated the appropriateness, theme, and intended audience of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

In another discussion, the debate over the narrative structure of OneRepublic’s “Say (All I Need)”.

Aside from checking in with students to make certain they’re finding texts and offering suggestions for planning their discussions, I stay out of things as much as possible.

I know the texts, but I haven’t read many of them.

There’s an element of trust there, I suppose.

It’s why I ask that the texts be important to the students sharing them.

“If you bring in something you don’t care about, it’s more likely that we won’t either.”

This is likely why I have such trouble teaching The Great Gatsby.

Some early possibilities this year include an excerpt from the film version of For Colored Girls, a cross-medium analysis of a quotation from The Kite Runner, deconstruction of Hamlet’s most famous of soliloquies and a Rage Against the Machine song.

Aside from Hamlet, these will be texts with which I am largely unfamiliar. While this adds an air of novelty to the process, the greater benefit is my not having a preconceived notion of how a discussion should play out. I’m learning along with the rest of the class.

This year’s iteration of the assignment includes one major adjustment. Aside from the 30-minute minimum, the students and I are building the assessment criteria for the discussions together.

Before they’ve built anything, we work to answer the questions, “What should a great version of these discussions look like? What should we expect as help in our thinking? What is the role of the discussion leader?”

Before they graduate from high school, I want them to graduate to owning class and their thinking.

Things I Know 86 of 365: Sometimes I need to put on the teacher hat

Friday, one of my G11 classes was having a class discussion. I gave them 7 minutes to find an interesting news story, pull out the main details, state their opinion in one sentence and draft a question to spark conversation.

If a particular topic lost steam, whoever brought that topic up called on someone else to inject a new topic into the conversation.

One student introduced the proposed fair schedule changes to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s mass transit provider.

As soon as the name left the student’s mouth, the class was awash in groans.

Philadelphians love to hate SEPTA. Cheesesteaks, Rocky Steps, booing our own sports teams, and abhorring SEPTA – in these things we find our brotherly love.

Once the topic and the proposed fair schedule were introduced, the expected flurry of slanderous complaints started up.

Each student took his turn to talk and called on the next.

“I know SEPTA’s not perfect,” someone said, “But, when you think about it, SEPTA can get you pretty much anywhere in the city of Philadelphia without much of a problem.”

A lone voice against the tumult. One brave villager against throngs of pitchforks and torches.

“Sure, sometimes they’re late, but most of the time they’re on time.”

“What bus do you take,” someone asked?

The lone voice answered.

“Those are white people buses,” the questioner scoffed his reply.

The conversation took a turn.

In the moments the class was snickering at this half joke, I had to decide how I was going to be a teacher once the laughter subsided.

“Hold on a sec,” I said, “I need to be your English teacher right now.”

“I need to unpack that statement because you said a lot more than what you said.”

It was one of those great moments where I got to use real language as the object of study. I talked about the mixture of humor and seriousness in that moment and suggested the humor might obscure the deeper point of the statement.

Then I pulled attention to the embedded implication that only black people in Philadelphia lived in poverty or that white people’s experiences in poverty were less valid. Briefly, I touched on the possibility that the statement also could have been construed as a weapon meant to make others positioned anywhere on the class spectrum feel guilt over their socioeconomic status.

Another student said she agreed the comment was inappropriate, but insisted their was a difference between bus service across neighborhoods.

We talked about the truth of that statement and started to play with the complexity of the whole idea.

I stopped to clarify that I wasn’t angry about what had been said, but that I would have been remiss in my duties if I didn’t take the time to pull it apart and start to consider the multitude of meanings.

I know there were probably a million ways I could have handled the whole conversation better, but that’s how I handled it Friday. Next time, whatever the next time is, I’ll do it a little bit better. And, it was loads better than some similar conversations from my first years in the classroom.

Then, as always, I tried for the same things:

  • talking, not yelling
  • eliciting conversation not compliance
  • respecting whatever opinions are on the table
  • challenging the untested opinions
  • speaking with authority, not as an authoritarian

Though it’s un-Philadelphian of me, I’m thankful for SEPTA for inciting the conversation.

Things I Know 76 of 365: Good conversation can be self-sustaining

Conversation would be vastly improved by the constant use of four simple words: I do not know.

– Andre Maurois

Thursday’s advisory began with a question. Actually it was a statement first, “Now, I don’t mean to sound racist.”

I turned to Matt, my co-advisor, and said, “We’re about to hear something racist.”

“Why is it that caucasian people can’t handle spicy foods?”

I was wrong.

The next 45 minutes ended up being one of the best advisory periods I’ve ever had.

We wound through racism and stereotypes and what separates the two. We talked about possible sources of those beliefs. We talked about some of the roots of American cultures and asked questions of the kids as to what they understood.

I explained my family had no discernible roots in the Caucasian Mountains and that it was okay to call me white.

When one student said, “Let’s say someone calls someone else the ’n-word’ for no good reason, what do we do?” we worked toward an answer to the question and dealt with the idea that “for no good reason” implied there could be a good reason.

From a bean bag chair, one advisee added, “The ’n-word’ was just a way the slave owners oppressed black men.”

I’ve had this conversation or some off-shoot of it many times. This was the best version.

“What about when you hear someone say something and you think it is racist? What’s the best way to deal with that?” I asked the advisory.

I called on a student who didn’t have her hand up, but whom I could tell was working through her answer by the look on her face.

“Tell us what you’re thinking,” I said, “Even if you’re not sure, tell us what’s playing through your mind.”

A little shocked at first, she said, “Well, I guess I’d ask them questions. When she asked her question,” she said motioning to the student who had asked the initial question, “you didn’t jump on her or anything. You just asked her questions. That seems like the best thing to do.”

I challenged a little bit, suggesting it was one thing to offer that answer now, but another to remember it in the heat of the moment when one feels offended. The advisee agreed and we continued thinking and talking.

We continued, as luck would have it well past the dismissal time for advisory.

No one made a move toward their book bag.

No one asked if they could leave.

No one departed from the conversation.

Because the conversation started from a place of curiosity and the topic we were discussing was rich with no clear answers, no one seemed to notice we’d tripped over the end of our mandated togetherness.