February 3rd, 2014
Sarah Cooper teaches U.S. history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. In her latest blog post she talks about how she guides classrooms discussions in her eighth-grade classroom to make sure that students have a chance to hear all perspectives, but also to build a sense of community and give students a long-lasting takeaway from their time in the classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9.
Feeding the Social Animal: How Much Discussion Is Too Much?
I don’t know what it’s like in your classroom, but the eighth graders in my U.S. history class often can’t stop talking.
They digress about pajama day and chicken fingers and video games. And, on good days, they also want to talk about history—not necessarily how a bill becomes a law, but how controversial topics such as affirmative action, press censorship, and privacy rights affect their lives.
Of course, I love their enthusiasm. But I also wonder: Where does the balance lie between full-class discussion and other activities that build content or skills? Can we have too much conversation that crowds out other meaningful pursuits?
Here’s an example:
We’ve hopscotched away from the text for a day to read an essay about Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves in Alan L. Lockwood and David E. Harris’s Reasoning with Democratic Values: Ethical Problems in United States History. Students often ask for more of these kinds of “stories”—anything that gives detail about people’s lives and avoids the fact-heavy textbook.
Over two nights they have read the piece for homework and responded in one-hundred-plus words to the question: “Can an action be morally right at one time in history and wrong in another?”
Students pair and share their homework responses for two minutes, and I ask them to give specific, positive feedback so their partners know they were actually listening. When we come together to talk about their views, I write a chart on the board showing both sides: morals are morals, regardless of time period or morals change with time.
The discussion wends its way through the room for fifteen minutes. Some students speak just to speak, whereas others respond to each other’s points. Five minutes in, ten hands are still waiting for airtime. Ten minutes in, five hands remain, and then three more pop up after a controversial comment.
Do I let everyone talk? Is it better to hear fifteen opinions—and for so many to voice their ideas—than for everyone to hear five opinions and then interact with those perspectives in some way? In the zero-sum game of classroom time management, in the confines of a school year, I think about this question a lot.
Interaction with the discussion, in pairs or individually, could mean picking a favorite argument from the chart, using it as a topic sentence for a theoretical paragraph, and listing three facts to support it. Or it could mean browsing a newspaper, hard copy or online, to find an article that discusses morality, then deciding how the article’s theme is similar to or different from Jefferson’s problem. This kind of follow-up assignment feels real to me, in some ways more valuable than watching discussion play itself out.
Yet the days I’ve let discussion go longer, sometimes twenty minutes or more, are often the moments students remember best. They refer to the intensity of the conversation months later and clearly understand the points raised.
So, what is the ideal way to teach?
One answer may lie in asking what students hold onto in the long term. I remembered this recently when I came face-to-face with my eighth-grade self over winter vacation (braces and all).
Visiting my dad, I started digging through boxes of old schoolwork. The first box contained papers from U.S. history when I was in middle school: a neatly handwritten chart of American explorers, a packet of worksheets on the Revolution, a stack of color-coded note cards from research projects.
All of this I had no memory of. None.
What did I remember from eighth-grade history, before I ever opened that box?
- A passion for current events that led to loud arguments on the way out the door to lunch. It was 1988, and we all dug trenches for or against George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
- A Model United Nations conference in which we took China’s perspective.
- The friends I made in that class, many of whom I still talk with today.
All of these memories clearly involved people and discussion. Research and reading and writing also were important, but we used these tools to engage with other people’s views and ideas, often vociferously. We felt that we were talking about adult issues like adults, that we were serious contenders in the intellectual life of the country. And, in the process, we did learn “invisible” skills that I used through high school and beyond to continue to contribute to the discussions around me.
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