After two months of being cooped up in the house with two kids under the age of two, we finally went back to school yesterday.
To open my class yesterday, I asked my students to get up and get talking with one another–about nothing in particular. Each student had written her name on a note card, and after thoroughly mixing and redistributing them, each student had to go find her card’s owner and get to know him or her. Once we got talking, the room was never silent, and after we were all seated again, I asked students what topics they used as conversational entrees.
“Well, I’ve been in a lot of classes with people in here before, but never knew their names, so it was helpful to just start with an introduction,” one student volunteered.
I was flabbergasted–how could these students not even know each other’s names?! What sorts of classes were being taught that didn’t allow for dialogue and collaboration at this most basic level!?
But then I realized that this was the norm, and often is for our high school students, too. This statistic was even highlighted in the first page of the article we were reading for class: “Less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion that requires reasoning or an opinion from students, according to researcher John Goodland.”
I think we can all agree that reasoning and opinion should be at the forefront of student dialogue, and a central goal of any curriculum. But if we’re spending less than one percent of our time on these things, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.
After my students listed ways they began conversations with one another–clothing choices, majors, the weather, how was your break–I asked them how they planned to get to know their students.
“I’m going to give them an interest inventory,” one student said. “I’ll do a learning styles survey,” another claimed. Facepalm, I said.
No one said, “by starting a conversation just like we did today,” which is what I was hoping they’d jump to. Conferring is our most powerful instructional and assessment tool, and it’s the art of a conversation made critical. Not only is it important for teachers to get to know our students through simple talk–not with the barrier of a survey or paper between ourselves and students–but it’s important for students to practice the skill of conversation, first with us, then with one another.
Because perhaps less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion not only because of how traditional classrooms are structured, but because of how little space in our culture there is for conversation these days. I’ve written about the value of talk before, but I’m coming to believe that there is more value in conversation. The exchange of ideas is much more valuable than the simple act of articulating one’s own, and needs to be our end goal.
The moves we make as teachers and thinkers will help our students reach this aim–first to help them read critically enough to develop their own nuanced opinions, then to help them write and talk to draft out their thinking, and finally to help them share and grow these ideas through conversation. Not to defend their own ideas, which remain only theirs, but to help their thinking evolve through discussion.
Oprah Winfrey, in a speech that I hope will be close-read by millions of high school students as a mentor text this week, reminds us that “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” and that our truths have power when someone “chooses to listen.”
Speaking and listening are much more than just standards for us to cover–they are the tools our students need to change themselves and the world for the better.
Shana Karnes is a mom of two daughters, a teacher of preservice educators, and a writer of hopes and dreams–in her notebook and here on Three Teachers Talk. She is delighted that winter break and maternity leave have ended and that she’s back in the classroom with her tribe. Find her on Twitter at @litreader.