You ask a question; on a good day, hands raise. Three or four students speak in turn. You rephrase or echo the students’ ideas. If the class is enthusiastic, there is jockeying for attention, hands waving wildly. If the class is lethargic, you cajole for more hands. You get an answer or two and move on. Was the discussion successful? How do you know? What was the goal, anyhow?
The Limits of Discussion
Humans in general, and young people in particular, have difficulty in attending to more than one thing at a time. (Currently, I am having trouble both focusing on writing this and trying not to get angry at the passenger in 23D who keeps moving his seat back, banging me in the knees). Students, similarly, may have difficulty in flailing their hand in the air and attending to the “point” of a discussion. They don’t know (and it’s not their job to know) what the point is. As time is ticking away, eating dangerously into the time you’ve allotted for the next activity, the only person in the room who is concerned that the point of the discussion might be lost forever is you. On the flip side, after the class has already shifted its attention numerous times and lost the point, it’s on the teacher to re-explain and reinforce the point of the discussion. If she or he doesn’t, students will file the whole discussion into their “nice-to-know” mental-folders…otherwise known as the “forget immediately” folder. Catch 22: the teacher doesn’t interject and summarize. The point is lost. The teacher does interject and summarize. Students tune out.
Q: What can be done to keep the discussion on track, on time, and in students’ minds?
A: Don’t discuss. Curate.
The root of the word “discussion” is “cuss” – as in percussion or concussion – meaning “strike.” (It is not, as my friend recently suggested, related to the word “cussin’.”) Discussion: Imagine a group of people in a classroom, striking a topic until it splits apart. And that is, exactly, my critique of discussion. Its generative, but what it generates is easily lost. I have experimented for years with an alternative strategy to generate student ideas, one which puts students’ voices front-and center, which allows the teacher to fade to the back, and which demands of the teacher a more precise, composed prompt, and provides for the class a pool of ideas that the teacher can leverage for effective transition into text study, activities, or assessments. I call it “curation.” The word “curate” is related to the word care, and even has spiritual connotations. Historically, people called “curates” were charged with the care of peoples souls. Curators, today, lovingly care for a collection of art, assembling it in a way where the sum of the parts will allow each piece to shine brightest. The curator does not overindulge unnecessary attention on a single piece of art; she is not a tour-guide. But she sees each piece for what it contributes to the collection, and arranges them for the most powerful, effective collective impact.
How does this work in the classroom?
1. Backwards Design – what is the take-home message (the enduring understanding)? Articulate this idea to yourself as you lesson plan. 2. Design a prompt that will point towards this take-home message. You only get to ask/offer one question / prompt – so make it good. 3. Assign a speaker’s list: Rather than call on students and reflect/comment in between, use a speakers’ list. Use a script like this: “I’d love 5 people to respond to this prompt. When you’re done speaking, say ‘pass.’ [Or give students a koosh-ball to hold while speaking and to toss to the next speaker when finished.] Allow hands to raise, and call on each in fast succession, giving a number to each. 4. Don’t panic if only one or two hands raise. Call on on those, then ask for more. 5. Listen deeply while the students speak. Look for patterns emerging.
6. Curate: point out the patterns you saw, ask if anyone would like to comment on the pattern, and explain what that pattern has to do with your take-home message.
Examples of patterns: a. The Minority Report: All the responses fell in one area… but a lone voice expressed a different opinion. b. Poles Apart: Half the class responded one way, the other half responded the other way. c. Camps: The classes responses divide into 3 or 4 “camps.” d. Unanimous / Universal: Everyone who responded had something in common on their answers. e. The forgotten: The group responded Unanimously or Poles Apart but surprisingly, a certain answer was never offered. f. the brainstorm / list: a list of 5-7 responses that explore the range of a subject
After curation, tie to the day’s reading or activity. Here are some examples: 1. (Poles apart): It sounds like half of this class feels strongly that parents should allow their children to make mistakes, and half feels that parents should intervene. In today’s text, you will read a story about a parent with this dilemma. Let’s see which approach she uses. 2. (Brainstorm): It sounds like the class has thought a lot about how to make change in life: you listed visualizing, asking for help, journaling, experimenting with new approaches. In today’s text, we will see a character who has trouble making change, and we will consider why it’s so difficult for him. 3. (The Forgotten): The class sounds certain that it’s better to “look before you leap,” but I’m surprised that no one said, “It’s best to go with your gut.” Why is that? [Allow a few responses.] In today’s reading, Hamlet needs to make a decision. Let’s see which approaches he uses, and the pros and cons of each.
become a staple of my classroom experience, and a powerful tool for generating student-driven material. I’d love to hear some of your challenges or questions you have about curation.