“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.
If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)
Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.
Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”
The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.
The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.
And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.
For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.
Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.
Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.
I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.
Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.