Thursday, February 19, 2015

AV#118 - Balance - Part 1 - Let them talk

Balance is my larger theme in the next two newsletters. Let’s make sure we offer Colorado students a well-rounded, rich curriculum—not one narrowed by “what gets tested.”
In AV#118, the topic is classroom discussion.

Let’s hope the next generation will improve on our poor example.  Too often in our “adult world” we shout and hardly listen.  Our classrooms can be a sanctuary from this madness, a safe place where we encourage students to speak and listen well.  This expectation is, after all, central to Colorado’s standards. Even if “not assessed,” this skill, this characteristic, is important.  True?

The Colorado Department of Education’s guide for the (NOTE ALL THREE)
Reading, Writing, and Communicating standards lists four subgroups:
1 - Oral Expression and Listening
2 - Reading for All Purposes       3 - Writing and Composition            4 - Research and Reasoning

-Colorado’s Academic Standards on
    speaking and listening –                       pages 3-4
-Letter to parents of my middle schools students on class discussions –                            pages 5-6
-purpose of schools in America                          p.7
-Orwell: Animal Farm and Benjamin                p. 8
-a healthy democracy – the importance of    better speaking and listening skills               p.9
-For teachers & teacher evaluators                p. 10

Although the Colorado Academic Standards (above) for Language Arts speak of FOUR components, we realize, do we not, that state tests do not measure the first standard?  Not directly anyway.      

I do not find this odd–it is hard to imagine a state-wide test that could measure speaking and listening—but I wish to “speak” about it. After all, SPEAKING is my point here—how critical it is that students have a chance to talk, to be heard during class time, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with classmates and with the teacher.  Though not assessed by the Reading and Writing portion of CSAP/TCAP over the past 15 years (and I can’t see how the new PARCC assessments will do it any better), it is a clear expectation of a   (con’t on p. 2)
“Even among gifted kids, the understanding of Shakespeare takes a good degree of collaboration and conversation. … When do we sit down, with our play, and analyze the characters, and figure out the author’s intent, and uncode his humor? … Students learn from one another, and that conver-sation is the richness of education—if we’re talking not about schooling but about education.”  - Kristin Kearns Jordan (an Exeter alumna, founder of the Bronx Preparatory Charter School), “School on a Hill: On the design and  redesign of American education,” Harper’s, Fall 2001.

Every classroom at Exeter has a Harkness table, with a class of 12 students and ample opportunity for dialogue. The Harkness table places students at the center of the learning process and encourages them to learn from one another.  For more on “the Harkness philosophy” used by Philips Exeter Academy:

(con’t from p. 1)
good classroom and of a good teacher, and therefore one that needs to be stressed—and measured in some fashion.  Are we doing it? How well? 

“A voice is a human gift …. Powerlessness and silence go together.” Margaret Atwood

You will find no answers here, just questions—and an attempt to put the issue of speaking, listening, and classroom discussion on the table.   First I remind you of (the seldom mentioned) state expectations in this matter–pages 3 and 4. Second, I share the letter I wrote to the parents of my middle school students ten years ago (Parker’s Core Knowledge Charter School)–pages 5 and 6, on the importance of classroom participation (which usually counted as 20% of their grade). Third, I quote Neil Postman on teaching our youth “how to argue,” how to tackle the big questions, as among the most essential skills to foster a healthy democracy.  (An endangered skill—wouldn’t you agree? ) If our schools are designed to prepare first and foremost citizens (not workers-see AV#115), the classroom has a special obligation to help each student learn to take part in the “great American experiment.” Fourth, from Animal Farm, Orwell’s warning on the consequences when citizens do not speak up. Fifth, a reminder of the “echo chamber” many of us live in, making it all the more necessary that we focus on helping our students communicate clearly, listen attentively, and learn how to engage in civil discussions. Finally, a few resources for teachers and evaluators as we try to ensure that we measure student engagement when judging a teacher’s “performance.”  Sadly, teachers still speak of “putting on a good show” when the evaluator visits.  Isn’t it more critical to see that students are engaged, speaking and listening well?
I taught at the Emma Willard School (Troy, N.Y.) in the mid-1980’s.  Yes, smaller classes than in most public schools.  But to foster discussion, we can break up a class of any size into groups of 3-6 students.

Sammie writes: “Today in English class we discussed poems by Emily Dickinson. Poetry is one of the many different types of literature we read in English III. Right now we are focusing on tone and what different things contribute to it. Instead of just talking about the tone, today we split up into groups and were told to create an oral explication in which we describe how each line in the poem contributes to the tone. … By talking in small groups and then sharing with the whole class, one can delve deep into the purpose of the author and the situation of the speaker.”
From “A day in the life of Sammie,”
From Colorado Department of Education

Colorado Academic Standards
Oral Expression and Listening
(general guidelines from six grades – 12, 9, 7, 5, 2, and K)

Concepts and skills master:
Prepared Graduates:
-Collaborate effectively as group members or leaders who listen actively and respectfully pose thoughtful questions, acknowledge the ideas of others, and contribute ideas to further the group’s attainment of an objective
-Demonstrate skill in inferential and evaluative listening
Twelfth Grade
1. Effective speaking in formal and informal settings requires appropriate use of methods and audience awareness                                                                                            
2. Effective collaborative groups accomplish goals

Ninth Grade
1. Oral presentations require effective preparation strategies
2. Listening critically to comprehend a speaker’s message requires mental and physical strategies to direct and maintain attention
A warning – “Who is talking to whom?”
“Speaking and listening—essential preliteracy skills—are also declining. Sitting in any Starbucks, you can easily witness this—parents regularly checking their phones, reviewing messages, texts, etc.; small children sitting quietly in their strollers with iPads. Who is talking to whom? …. I find this ironic as we aggressively roll out the Common Core State Standards, which include significantly increased linguistic demands for all language skills—especially listening and speaking for all grade levels.” Dennis Terdy – 40-year career as teacher, administrator, consultant, Education Week, 6/11/14.
Seventh Grade
1. Formal presentations require preparation and
effective delivery
2. Small and large group discussions rely on active
listening and the effective contributions of all participants

Fifth Grade
1. Effective communication requires speakers to express an opinion, provide information, describe a process, and persuade an audience  
2. Listening strategies are techniques that contribute to understanding different situations and serving different purposes.

At what grade can we begin to foster good discussion?
As early as possible!
Lisa Hansel writes: “we learn how to build knowledge before children can read.” For support, she quotes approvingly from Common Core’s “Standard 10” for grades K-5: “Children in the early grades (particularly K-2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing….”
Second Grade
1. Discussions contribute and expand on the ideas of self and others
2. New information can be learned and better dialogue created by listening actively

1. Oral communication skills are built within a language-rich environment
2. Communication relies on effective verbal and nonverbal skills
3. Vocal sounds produce words and meaning to create early knowledge of phonemic awareness

From Colorado Department of Education

Grade Level Expectation: Seventh Grade  -  Concepts and skills students master:

2. Small and large group discussions rely on active listening and the effective contributions of all participants

Evidence Outcomes  -  Students Can:
a.  Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. (CCSS: SL.7.1)

i.                      Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion. (CCSS: SL.7.1a)
                        iii.  Pose questions that elicit elaboration and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant observations and ideas that bring the discussion back on topic as needed. (CCSS: SL.7.1c)
iv.  Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views. (CCSS: SL.7.1d)
b. Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, and orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study. (CCSS: SL.7.2)

c. Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. (CCSS: SL.7.3)
21st Century Skills and Readiness Competencies - Nature of Reading, Writing, and Communicating

12th grade - Use of skilled communication in group settings creates collaboration and understanding. (p. 26)
10th grade - Skilled communicators can speak to both sides of an issue because they look at topics from      multiple perspectives. (p. 29)
8th grade - Skilled communicators must be open to the ideas of others. (p. 33)
7th grade – 1) Skilled communicators demonstrate a balance between listening and sharing.
     2) Skilled listeners recognize that others have important ideas. (p. 36)

INQUIRY – key to good discussions

Colorado’s Description of Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness
(Adopted by the State Board of Education, June 2009)
Postsecondary and workforce readiness describes the knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential for high school graduates to be prepared to enter college and the workforce and to compete in the global economy. The description assumes students have developed consistent intellectual growth throughout their high school career as a result of academic work that is increasingly challenging, engaging, and coherent. …

How These Skills and Competencies are Embedded in the Revised Standards
Three themes are used to describe these important skills and competencies and are interwoven throughout the standards: inquiry questions; relevance and application; and the nature of each discipline.…

Inquiry Questions – Inquiry is a multifaceted process requiring students to think and pursue under-standing. Inquiry demands that students (a) engage in an active observation and questioning process; (b) investigate to gather evidence; (c) formulate explanations based on evidence; (d) communicate and justify explanations, and; (e) reflect and refine ideas. Inquiry is more than hands-on activities; it requires students to cognitively wrestle with core concepts as they make sense of new ideas.

(Written almost a decade ago…)
TO the parents of 7th grade Language students, and                           8/15/2005
to the parents of our several new 8th grade students                                                      
A note from Mr. Huidekoper on reading, class discussion, and student participation

    Getting as many students as possible involved in classroom discussions is an important goal for our school and for me as a teacher.  The Core Knowledge curriculum guide includes speaking and listening as a central component of the Language goals: students are expected to “participate civilly and productively in group discussions.”  The Language standards for Colorado and for Douglas County[1] emphasize reading and writing skills, but they also make specific reference to classroom discussion.  Language Standard 5 states: “The student demonstrates the ability to communicate orally for a variety of purposes … applies knowledge of situation (e.g. formal presentation, informal discussion), audience and purpose when presenting orally.”  I imagine our school’s commitment to class sizes of no more than 22 is done in part to help nurture such discussions, and to be sure each student has the chance to contribute.
    I have deeply enjoyed many wonderful literature discussions in my classroom these past four years; a few times classes have approached the ideal one looks for in a “Socratic seminar,” where, as I will discuss further on, students are engaged in a thoughtful, earnest, and open-minded look into the text and what it means.  Such classes are a real source of satisfaction; I am so grateful to be in a setting where such discussions are possible.  Nevertheless, I write this in part to explain the approach I often use, as I hope this rationale will help more students become involved in such discussions.  And I write because I have seen some students hold back; at least during the first part of the year, they do not participate as much as they could.  A talk with a parent made me realize an explanatory note might help, in order to clarify the kind of discussions we try to have in Language class.
    I believe we want our middle school students to be actively engaged in thinking about the characters and how and why they change in our stories, plays, and novels, in exploring the various kinds of conflicts these characters experience, and in trying to understand the author’s purpose.  The reading skills of our seventh and eighth graders will be stronger as they look for such elements in the literature.  Students can and should demonstrate this engagement not only in their writing and/or on quizzes and tests, but also in classroom discussions about the stories or plays, and in talking about the literature with others.   
    My guess is many of our students discuss these stories with their family—and THAT IS GREAT.  Our hope, however, is that they will also take part in discussions in class, where their ideas can be articulated and clarified.  It cannot be emphasized enough how much every student who plays a constructive, active role in class discussion helps his or her classmates gain new perspectives on and insights into a story.  As a result, each student’s understanding of the literature becomes stronger.  Sometimes the thoughtful contributions from classmates cause a student to rethink his or her view of a character, of the tone of the work, or of the theme.  It is a pleasure to watch such re-examination take place in the classroom, to see students discover new ways of seeing the story through these discussions.
        For all of this to happen, however, students need to take the risk of offering their insights and sharing their interpretation.  Some are hesitant to do so.  Of course a teacher can be a factor; please know that I ask myself what I am doing that might discourage participation, and know that I try to make all students feel their comments are welcome.  But perhaps the hesitancy comes from the way this approach feels somewhat new, and even uncomfortable, at first. 
    You will note that my emphasis here is on what comes from the class and one’s classmates, not on what I contribute.  This is where some students may find it an adjustment from some classes they have had when they were younger.  In talking about the literature I often try to ask questions and then to invite responses from as many students as possible.  But on hearing Billy or Sarah’s comments, I tend not to say, “That’s right,” or “That’s inaccurate.”  Instead I often nod, noncommittally, and then ask the next person for his or her view.  I hope new students and parents can see the reason for this approach.  I think returning students better understand how it might be an appropriate style to use at this age level (as it will be through much of their literature discussions in high school and college).      The chief benefit in this structure is that students become involved in what Junior Great Books calls “shared inquiry.”  …  Perhaps the most well-known and well-respected organization that has been teaching this strategy to teachers and parents for decades is the Junior Great Books (JGB) Program. I hope that by sharing some of the language and principles of the JGB Program, I can help provide further rationale for this approach with young students. (JGB, in fact, believes this style can work powerfully with elementary grades as well.)

Borrowing key elements from the Junior Great Books Program

    JGB articulates the “Shared Inquiry” approach in this way.  (The following is lifted directly from the JGB web site. See - for more information.)[2] 
        “… The success of shared inquiry depends on a special relationship between the leader and the group.  (Leaders) do not impart information or present (their) own opinions, but guide participants in reaching their own interpretations.  You do this by posing thought-provoking questions and by following up purposefully on what participants say.  In doing so, you help them develop both the flexibility of mind to consider problems from many angles, and the discipline to analyze ideas critically…  In shared inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as the evidence demands.  They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts.  In this way, the shared inquiry method promotes thoughtful dialogue and open debate, preparing its participants to become able, responsible citizens, as well as enthusiastic, lifelong readers.”  

    I hope this helps explain why student comments, be they brilliant or bizarre, might get the same nod from me, before we turn to listen to someone else. I hope you can appreciate the rationale to this approach.  I believe it can help us foster honest and thoughtful discussions, and help each student meet CKCS goals for oral participation.  I hope your boy or girl will soon feel comfort- able with this approach, and will offer his or her thoughts on a regular basis.  We hope students will see how much more exciting and meaningful the classroom can be when they all know they have an important role to play to communicate their thoughts about the literature.  Put another way, I hope all will know they have a vital role in “pulling their oar” in our journey together.

I am truly excited about the year ahead—and the good discussions we will have! 
Thank you so much for all your help.                                                                   Mr. Huidekoper


Argument – the All-American sport!!!   
From Neil Postman’s The End of Education 

I quoted from Postman extensively in AV#114 – on the purpose of education—and do so again here.  I love one of his suggestions for a more uplifting view of the purpose of schooling, which places argument as central to the American story.  In a state with such feeble social studies standards (AV#76-“Colorado scores an F on our history standards,” 3/5/11), we would do well, I believe, to take note of the way Postman connects our roots as a nation with what we owe our students: a place to engage in thoughtful discussion.
“America was the first nation to be argued into existence.  The Declaration of Independence is an argument, and it was composed as such. Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man is an argument…. All Supreme Court decisions are arguments, some deeply embarrassing ones—for example, the Dred Scott decision, which calls to mind the Lincoln-Douglas debates, our best-known and possibly most skillfully crafted arguments….

“Of course, all the arguments have a theme that is made manifest in a series of questions: What is freedom? What are its limits? What is a human being? What are the obligations of citizenship? What is meant by democracy? And so on…. But which ones are the right answers? We don’t know. There’s the rub, and the beauty and the value of the story. So we argue and experiment and complain, and grieve, and rejoice, and argue some more, without end….  All is fluid and subject to change, to better arguments, to the results of future experiments.

It is telling that a book titled Crucial Conversations - Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High is a best-seller. Authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler no doubt address a need Americans feel—to learn how to communicate “in a relationship, in your career, at home” in order to avoid “getting stuck”—and worse.  As skillful as we may now be with fast and witty text messages, we are still in need of face to face dialogue to express our emotions, settle conflicts, and move forward.
“This, it seems to me, is a fine and noble story to offer as a reason for schooling: to provide our youth with the knowledge and will to participate in the great experiment; to teach them how to argue, and to help them discover what questions are worth arguing about; and of course to make sure they know what happens when arguments cease. No one is excluded from the story. Every group has made good arguments, and bad ones. All points of view are admissible. The only thing we have to fear is that someone will insist on putting in an exclamation point when we are not yet finished.” (pages 72-74)

In the chapter “The American Experiment” Postman notes that schools today are “reluctan(t) to include patriotism as a ‘value,’ they reflect a tendency throughout the country, a certain uneasiness about where patriotism might lead. There is certainly more emphasis, these days, on loving one’s self than on loving one’s country, which means, I suppose, that Philip Rieff was prophetic when he wrote about ‘the triumph of the therapeutic.’” 

Postman acknowledges the danger when “love of country is too easily transmogrified into a mindless, xenophobic nationalism….”   But, he goes on to say:

“in steering clear of patriotism, educators miss an opportunity to provide schooling with a profound and transcendent narrative that can educate and inspire students of all ages.  I refer, of course, to the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument.

“There are many ways to unveil this story, and good teachers, at every level, can think of several if they believe the story is worthwhile. … as students progress from elementary school to high school to college, the study of the American experiment in freedom of expression must deepen, the arguments considered must increase in complexity, and the documents containing them must be more various….  it should be emphasized that the arguments are not finished; that today they are pursued with the same passion they once were….

“Is it too much to say that the arguments are the energy and the glory of the American experiment? Is it too much to hope that our young might learn to honor the tradition and to be inspired by it?” (pages 131-136)   

(My next newsletter, on CIVIC EDUCATION in Colorado, will connect to Postman’s theme.)

Orwell: Animal Farm and Benjamin
“For George Orwell, politics … started and ended with personal responsibility.” (The Economist, 7/13/02)
Colorado State Standards – History- Civics: Concepts and skills students master:  
                       Compare how various nations define the rights, responsibilities, and roles of citizens.
Inquiry Question: What roles of citizens are the most important?

When I teach Animal Farm, I hear Orwell urging my students (and future citizens) to SPEAK UP!
Benjamin, the donkey, often makes “cynical” remarks.  But he is largely silent.  He seems to mistrust Napoleon, but he won’t say it.  “About the Rebellion and its results he would express no opinion” (47).  He is no Boxer, no blind follower, yet he seems unwilling to use his intelligence.  “Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty” (50).  Merely an observer.  “Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work” (65).  Emphasized again 15 pages later: “Only Benjamin refused to grow enthusiastic about the windmill…” (81), while the other animals become obedient slaves to the new leaders.  Even after the terror—the slaughter of pigs, hens, sheep, “guilty” of crimes against the state— when “they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere,” Benjamin is asked to read the revised Sixth Commandment (“No animal shall kill another animal without cause”). But he will not.  He “said that he refused to meddle in such matters” (98). 

Benjamin shows concern for Boxer, the ever-trusting horse (“Comrade Napoleon is always right”) laboring overtime for his new master, but when the powerful old plow horse takes a bad fall and is no longer indispensable, a van comes to take him away.  Only now, too late, does Benjamin find his voice.

“… they were astonished to see Benjamin come galloping from the direction of the farm buildings, braying at the top of his voice  It was the first time that they had ever seen Benjamin excited—indeed, it was the first time that anyone had ever seen him gallop. ‘Quick, quick!’ he shouted. ‘Come at once! They’re taking Boxer away!’”

And while the other animals have grown so blind that at first they accept the story that the van is there merely to take Boxer to the animal hospital for treatment, it is the donkey who now cannot stay silent:

“‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing around them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?”

And now, at last, he will read:

“‘Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon. Dealer in Hides and Bone-Meal. Kennels Supplied.’ Do you not understand what that means? They are taking Boxer to the knacker’s!’”

Benjamin had always understood.  But he had never spoken up—until it was too late.


With a parable or fable like Animal Farm, a teacher finds it appropriate to speak of a story’s “lesson.” Especially when we read Orwell himself state:

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism…. Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

So it feels right to ask our students what kind of people Benjamin represents, and what is Orwell’s message—on totalitarianism, a citizen’s responsibility, and silence.  And before ending the unit on Animal Farm, it feels right to ask students to respond to this great quote from Canadian poet and author Margaret Atwood:

“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter human speech, as fully as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.”

A healthy democracy - and our ability to argue in a way that that is civil and respectful

Many point out the danger of living in our own “echo chamber,” where we avoid hearing different points of view. The Washington Post’s Ruben Navarrette voiced this concern nicely in his column:

“People feel they have enough conflict and confrontation in their lives, and so what they expect from media outlets is a kind of intellectual cave they can crawl into to seek refuge from things they don’t disagree with….

“… joining you in your cave will be some lovely folks who won’t fight, judge, or criticize you for what you believe – because they believe the same things you do. And to pass the time, you can all sit around and make fun of those people outside the cave who think differently. Of course, that won’t be easy because you haven’t taken the time to understand what those people think and why they think it.”
(The Denver Post, “In the media echo chamber, agreeing to agree,” Oct. 14, 2013)

Liz Joyner made a similar point in her commentary, “Civil discourse that doesn’t taste like broccoli”:

“… Bunkered up at home with information sources that serve us as a virtual amen chorus for everything we want to believe, we can’t seem to tolerate the people we used to share town meetings with.

“In The Big Sort: Why Clustering of Like- Minded America is Tearing us Apart, Bill Bishop documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views—in the churches we go to, the clubs we join, the neighborhoods we live in. ”

In Joyner’s opinion, this leads to a breakdown in communication—to any kind of polite exchange of different points of view:

“With neighbors no longer engaging across the aisle, there’s little to mitigate the human tendency toward tribalism. Once we’ve demonized each other, the simple act of talking is tantamount to negotiating with evil.”  (The Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2014)

You ask: OK, but how is this relevant to K-12 education?  Because it calls on schools to be the antidote, to create classrooms that are a sanctuary, a place where students learn to hold civil conversations. To experience anything but an “echo chamber.” To LISTEN to different points of view.   (See the next page for suggestions on how to manage “Difficult Dialogues.”  Believe me, I know how hard this can be!)

Here’s an ideal to look to.  In John Wain’s biography of Samuel Johnson, we learn that “the Club played a central part in his life.” A group of men who met weekly or every other week for years, it gave Johnson

“friends he might talk with rather than merely admirers to talk at… the atmosphere was one of frank and free competition in the exchange of ideas; but there was no throat-cutting. It was a circle of men who liked and trusted each other…. The range of topics discussed, and the knowledge and experience which collectively these men brought to bear on them suggest that they thought of debate and discussion as part of the essential business of their lives. So, of course, does every sensible human being. But most human beings do not live in a social setting which permits of debate and discussion, on any level high enough to extend their minds and add to the stock of their thoughts. Moving about incessantly as we nowadays do, we are nearly always with strangers, and settled, purposeful talk is best conducted among people we know well.”  (Samuel Johnson – John Wain, p. 235)

Perhaps the classroom—from elementary grades through college—can aim to be such a “club” for our students.  We can hope.  Perhaps their generation might learn to speak and listen to each other with greater respect than they see in our example, when they click on the TV and watch us behave like….

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.     Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

Addendum - For teachers and those evaluating teachers
The Colorado Teacher Quality Standards – Standard 1
Element B: Teachers demonstrate knowledge of student literacy development
in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

1.   From the Center for Teaching  - “Difficult Dialogues”

For most teachers, leading classroom discussion on difficult topics is a perennial challenge. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that we never fully know which issues will be “hot buttons” for our students. Conversations can become heated very quickly, and before long, it can feel like the class is careening out of control. This guide seeks to help teachers feel more confident leading difficult dialogues by encouraging reflection on how such discussions connect with larger learning goals, and by providing specific strategies and resources that teachers can use to create more productive conversations in their classrooms.

Have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion.  Clarifying expectations about class discussions early on can prevent contentious situations later.  Discussion ground rules might include:
Always use a respectful tone. - No interrupting or yelling. - No name-calling or other character attacks. - Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking. - Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before stating your opinion. -  Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.

2.   Teaching Literature

Analyze teacher-student discussions. Observe and or record (with the teacher’s permission) one classroom discussion of literature in a high school or college. Make a list of all the questions the teacher asks during the discussion, as well as the sequence of the interactions between teacher and student by labeling the teacher question as a “T” and a student response as an “S.” How would you characterize those questions? To what degree are these questions “open” or “closed?” What was the “uptake” in response to questions—students’ response to the questions? What levels or kinds of interpretations are involved in answering these questions? To whom are the questions addressed? How many students participate in the discussion and how often? Are there instances of a string of “S’s” in which students are interacting with each other? What prompt elicited that string of “S’s?” What does the teacher seem to want students to know or learn from the discussion?

3.   Elberly Center – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
From “Discussions” - (Some sections adapted from Davis, 1993; Brookfield and Preskill, 1999)

Discussions can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits. They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.
While discussions provide avenues for exploration and discovery, leading a discussion can be anxiety-producing: discussions are, by their nature, unpredictable, and require us as instructors to surrender a certain degree of control over the flow of information. Fortunately, careful planning can help us ensure that discussions are lively without being chaotic and exploratory without losing focus. When planning a discussion, it is helpful to consider not only cognitive, but also social/emotional, and physical factors that can either foster or inhibit the productive exchange of ideas.

[1] I referred here to the Language Arts standards then in place for Colorado and Douglas County schools.

[2] JGB’s 2014 statement on shared inquiry is much the same.

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