How to encourage talking in class - with class

It might seem odd that teachers would choose to spend part of their summer examining the finer points of talking in class.

Most spend four or five periods each day for nine months, after all, explaining math problems at the blackboard, expounding on the nuances of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," or discussing a chemistry lab's procedures. Summer would seem to beckon as a time for some peace and quiet.

But on this hot summer morning in a small New Hampshire town, 50 middle- and high-school educators from around the United States can't wait to start a conversation.

For the next week, the when and how of classroom talk will be their focus at the Exeter Humanities Institute at Phillips Exeter Academy. Each day, these teachers will gather round the school's signature Harkness tables, large ovals that place teacher and student, chatterbox and quiet observer side by side, unhampered by hierarchy. Guided loosely by the institute's directors as well as two discussion leaders drawn from the group, they will analyze who asks questions, who tries for too much control, what prompts discussion, and what doesn't.

They hope to leave with new insights about class discussions that will enliven and strengthen their teaching come fall.

"I'd like to be a participant, but not the controller," says Cathy Miller, who has taught middle school history for three years at Aspen Country Day School in Colorado. "I'm trying to see how leaders steer conversation without overwhelming it."

That experiment kicks off at 8:30 a.m., as she and a small group of fellow teachers contemplate two words that have just appeared on the blackboard. "Future" and "anxiety" hover expectantly on the dark expanse, awaiting annotation.

Commentary shouldn't be difficult for this crowd. "Future" (How will I cover everything in the time available?) and "anxiety" (Will any students have done the reading?) are likely familiar subjects.

For one teacher, the words sum up the difficulty of trying to concentrate on the current assignment while wondering what will happen in an hour, when she will lead a group discussion. It brings her back, she says, to what it's like to be a student getting through the class just before a test.

But the focus largely is on a diary, a letter, a short story, a poem - readings that will bind the teachers together in discussion for the next 90 minutes.

Stewart Tucker, a teacher from Kent School in Connecticut and one of the leaders for this class, kicks things off by throwing out a question. A silence ensues - the kind that can leave a teacher wondering whether great wisdom is about to pour forth, or students are beginning a detailed study of their fingernails.

But in short order, the group is in the thick of a back-and-forth about happiness, powerlessness, and victimization - all issues that knock at the door of literature and history classes during the year. Questions bounce around the table, often directed at other students rather than at the leaders. Mr. Tucker and co-teacher Lory Stillman interject ideas periodically, occasionally calling on someone.

Soon, Ms. Stillman makes a surprising announcement: It's time to close the discussion and move to Part 2: the analysis.

The founders of the institute want teachers to gain a sense of how much students can learn through active, sustained discussion - something that's a given at Exeter during the year. It's an approach these teachers aim to extend beyond their institution's bucolic campus, in part through this week-long residential program, whose $750 tab is often picked up by the teachers' schools.

"The school has a mission to share this with a wider audience," says Becky Moore, an English teacher at Exeter. The physical structure of most classrooms, coupled with well-worn practices, often leads teachers to dominate the discourse. But, Ms. Moore says, there's no mystery about a fundamentally different approach. "It's a learned set of skills," she says.

On this morning, Bob Ganung and Karen Vetrone have served as observers and scribes of the classroom dynamics. They report that the flow was great, but one side of the table dominated. Gender balance was good. Teacher-to-student interactions numbered 13, while student-to-student ones hit 78.

Marcia Carlisle, a director of the institute and a history teacher at Exeter, says that ideally, about 75 percent of exchanges are between students. She also notes that questions, while a stock in trade, can actually bring discussion to a halt.

That resonates with Stillman, who jumps in, saying that it's often harder not to ask a question, and especially hard to avoid leading questions. The problem, she says, is tied to knowing whether students have mastered the material.

Others agree. "I wouldn't want [students] to get through without a close reading," Tucker says. "It's the difference between looking for the daily nutshell, and the wonderful articulation that has nothing to do with the material. It has to be something in the middle."

It's clear that the methods they are learning leave them with questions. "I tend to want to pull things together at the end," says Cherie Thompson. "Is it common to let it hang in beautiful chaos instead?"

Ms. Carlisle suggests that Ms. Thompson could encourage more student participation by handing that task over to class members. Other teachers chime in and say they already train students to lead discussions.

By the end of the week, this group will have worked through such issues many times, refining answers and pondering the many solutions offered by peers. Some suggest starting classes with a brief writing assignment; another gives a quick quiz to check students' grasp of the work. Several talk about giving grades for participation, as well as offering weekly feedback.

Despite the excitement generated by these discussions, they're realistic about what they can accomplish. A big concern is preparing students for state tests or advanced-placement exams. Too much discussion, they worry, may slow the march through the curriculum.

For Tucker, the confidence of the students is another issue.

"Some kids need more structure and would be terrified to sit around a table," he says. He is not planning any radical changes, he adds, but will nonetheless apply much of what he is learning to his teaching this fall.

Glenn Whitman, a history teacher at St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac Md., targets his fresh perspective on less being more. "It takes courage for teachers to be silent," he says. "You could just sit there, and let the kids think. When I go back, I'm going to shut up more."

E-mail newcomba@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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