Setting Expectations for Interactive Discussions
In order to facilitate more effective discussions, we cannot simply sit back and hope that our students understand what we expect them to do when we discuss a text. We need to make our expectations for interactive discussions clear and explicit, sharing our ideas and preferred vision for these discussions with our students if we expect them to participate in particular ways. When we share our expectations with our students, we help them understand the purposes and procedures for these interactions. I have listed below some expectations that I would share with my students early in the school year to help set the tone for our discussions.
- Ideas are Honestly Reported – Expecting students to share what they honestly think and feel is the most important goal we can instill in our students. If students aren’t willing to share what they really think our discussions are doomed to fail. We need to develop a sense of community in our classrooms that makes students feel comfortable enough to be willing to share their thoughts with honesty and integrity. I have suggested during my professional development workshops that we need to allow students to feel comfortable enough to tell us that they hate our favorite book – and, even more importantly, why they dislike it. If they feel comfortable enough to do that, maybe they will share their honest reactions to the other texts we read and share.
- Listening Well and Thinking Deeply are As Important As Talking – Successful discussions require people to share ideas, but they also require people to listen to what has been said and to think about these ideas. Every student involves themselves in the life of our classrooms in different ways. Some offer ideas frequently, while others are more reticent to share what they think. In our desire to get students to share their thoughts, we can’t forget that those students who aren’t sharing every day may be listening carefully and considering what has been discussed.
- Involve Yourselves in the Discussion in Various Ways - We need to find multiple ways for everyone to share their ideas. For example, having students turn to a partner and sharing their ideas with one person before sharing with the whole class ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard. The more variety of ways of responding we can provide, the more voices we will hear.
- Address Other Students as Well as the Teacher – Too often, students speak through us to other students rather than directly to each other. We don’t want to position ourselves in our discussions as the hub that all talk flows through. When a student disagrees or agrees with another student they need to talk to that student, not through us. Sitting in physical arrangements that allow students to see one another is a good way to encourage this type of interaction.
- Half Baked Ideas are Accepted and Encouraged – We cannot wait until our students have “fully baked” their ideas before they are willing to offer them. I like it when students tentatively offer their ideas, sharing their thought processes and current thinking. For example, when students says, “I’m kind of thinking that maybe the main character in the story should not have acted the way they did because they hurt other people” you get a sense of their thinking in process. Our discussions should support our students’ thinking in process and not just their final interpretations.
- Consider What Has Been Offered by Other Students – Listening to other students leads to considering what has been offered. Sometimes the ideas our students offer seem to be disjointed meaning they don’t seem to have paid attention to what has been said and what has been previously offered. We want students to take up from what has been shared and move the discussion in new directions.
- Be Willing to Reconsider Your Ideas – Coming to a discussion unwilling to consider what other people think and to be reluctant to change one’s mind can doom classroom discussions. We want students to come to our discussions with honest ideas, ones that they are passionate about, but at the same time willing to consider the ideas that other students bring.
Every year I set out to create a caring, democratic classroom environment in which my students feel empowered to speak out about issues that really matter to them and where their personal experiences and interpretations are heard and considered by all members of our classroom community. This kind of classroom environment needs to be both challenging and supportive, a place where a student feels free to express popular and unpopular interpretations and opinions. We need to be able to create a space where there is a basic respect for all individuals in the community, even during times of intellectual challenge.