Decentering the Conversation: Classroom discussion protocols


Though my search for scholé will be an eternal one, I’ve managed to carve out a pretty nice slice of conversational paradise for my penultimate unit this year. For some context, here’s an overview.

Deconstructing Systems of Power: Social Commentary & Critique

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Over the course of the unit we’ve explored philosophical concepts like language, truth, belief, control, etc. and how authors use craft based tools like irony, paradox, and logical fallacies to critique the hypocrisy present within modern systems. Despite the fact I love “1984” I didn’t love the way I taught it last year. I had essential questions, but they felt hollow. I had paired texts, but wasn’t clear on how they connected. I knew the potential of Orwell’s seminal work to capture my student’s imagination, but it went unrealized.

There are quite a few reasons why this unit is going better this year (aligning my curriculum around transferable concepts, choosing more engaging paired texts, and giving students some more time to read in class) but the biggest surprise has come from how my students have taken ownership of their learning through my discussion protocol mash up. It’s all about providing them some direction and context, but also decentering myself from the conversation.

(These steps occur after my students have done their assigned reading)

Step 1: Affinity Mapping

Over the course of their reading students were asked to generate five thoughts and three questions from the text and write them on sticky notes or index cards. Two of those notes must be quotes from the text to ensure they’re continually honing their close reading skills. For the opening 15 minutes, students arrange and group their notes in to affinity maps with a partner or in small groups.

What’s great about affinity mapping is its immediacy and structure. Providing students with no conversational direction can lead to stilted conversation or awkward silence, but overly prescriptive questions can quickly turn in to a trudge of compliance instead of an opportunity for exploration. As soon as the timer starts, students have a directive: start grouping post-its—even if there isn’t a single word spoken for the first thirty seconds or so, students are immediately collaborating and sharing ideas. It’s tactile. It’s visual. It’s creative.

Students typically start noticing overlap of their thoughts and questions pretty quickly, which then leads to further connections, new groupings, and deeper discussion. Considering my unit began with several concept attainment activities, they often gravitate towards arranging their notes around those broad, transferable concepts, which provides further potential for connection making. Here are some examples:

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It’s important to note that, though I’m walking around and asking occasional questions, I never prescribe categories or connections. The act of physically creating, assimilating, and transposing schema needs to be done by the learner. I really love that about affinity mapping—it’s a means and an end that are equally beneficial to the user.

Step 2: Thoughts/Questions/Epiphanies

During their 15 minutes of affinity mapping, students go up to my whiteboards and write their thoughts and questions on the respective board. I’ve experimented a bunch of different ways to do this, but the original idea was shared by an awesome, innovative educator named Marisa Thompson on the equally fantastic “Cult of Pedagogy” podcast.

T.Q.E is a sensible next step, as it lets students share the insight they’ve gleaned and questions they’ve pondered during the affinity mapping activity with their classmates. Better still, I leave their thoughts and questions on the board, so they can be used for conversational fuel during our Socratic seminars.

Here are some student examples from our first few discussions

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I’ve had a lot of students express concern or reservation over the quality and/or depth of their thoughts and questions. Up to this point I’ve said that the T & Q board is theirs to do with what they will. However, I spoke to some other teachers recently who made me wonder if it’d be worthwhile having some conversations about what makes a “stronger” question in an effort to get my students thinking and inquiring more deeply.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or ideas on that, readers!

Step 3: Socratic Seminars

When the students fifteen minutes of affinity mapping ends, students scoot their chairs out to a Socratic circle. They have twenty five minutes to discuss whatever they’d like as long as it is tied to the text or our essential questions. This leaves them some room to transfer their understanding of our core concepts to other contexts, which can either provide deeper insight in to the text or provide an opportunity to make authentic connections to their lives and/or current events. I plan on recording our end of unit seminar and will likely share it on my blog, because let me tell you people, they are something to behold. These kids are wise.

Step 4: Crafting generalizations

Part of what makes these conversations so seamless is my focus on concepts this year. This will be an entire blog post itself (if not a series) soon, but this video captures the broad strokes. I begin every unit by discussing and exploring the conceptual “building blocks” of their upcoming unit, then provide them with a choice of curated texts, fiction/non-fiction or otherwise where they can deepen their understanding of each concept in isolation and, eventually, begin to understand how they are interrelated. For more on this, check out Julie Stern’s game changing book.

At the end of the seminar, students return to their small group to generate their “epiphanies”. After five to seven minutes, students write them on the board, share them, and add them to their Intellectual Journals to revise as we continue the unit.

Here are some of our current examples from the opening chapters of 1984.

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After our generalizations are crafted, students are given a few choices of how to spend the rest of their time in class.

  1. Jump back in to reading our next assigned chapters of 1984
  2. Read, watch, or listen to their paired text, podcast, or TV episode
  3. Join me on my ratty carpet for “Continued Carpet Conversations”

The continued carpet conversations have been a personal favorite. The discussion can range further way from the text, get more personal, and really focus on the deeper meaning behind life and literature. The carpet conversations I’ve had with students this year have been some of the richest, most rewarding moments of my teaching career.

Just to show the scope of conversation, here are a few topics we’ve covered so far:

  • Orwell’s own political bias
  • Understanding the flaws of both capitalist and communist systems.
  • What role systems play in creating inequality.
  • Finding individual purpose in a world ruled by systems.
  • How our belief or hatred of certain systems is based on the narratives we believe.
  • The dangers of YouTube algorithms in creating extreme echo chambers
  • Whether health care should fall under governmental systems or market systems

And much more!

That about does it. Considering they were mashed up on the fly, the results of this protocol have been pretty mind blowing. That’s what I love about the search for scholé—sometimes it reveals itself in the most surprising, organic ways.


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