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The Point of Discussion

I recently explained to my students that I need to rethink many elements of teaching, and especially class discussion, as I prepare to teach online next year.  I’d like to enlist their help in defining what really goes on in Bessias English class discussions, and it seems like a good idea to give them a few days to think about it.   In the meantime, I’m going to go on record with my own version.

In general, students read a text for homework before class begins.  That gets them to a highly variable beginning point for discussion: some enter with a pretty strong understanding while others may be pretty confused.  Everyone, though, has more to learn (we we don’t read anything easy), and everyone can make an observation or ask a question about the text.

From the outset, I generally have in mind some topics to address (a characters’ motivation, for example, or the author’s writing style), but I often begin by soliciting thoughts from the students.  They ask questions, I ask questions, we look closely at passages.  I often write key phrases or make charts on the board.   I try to involve every member of the class and discourage anyone from dominating.   I try not to talk too much, but I probably use up at least a third of the air time.  In my mind, we’re all engaged in constructing an invisible tower, an understanding specific to this group, in the middle of the circle.

Probably 50% of total class time in a given week is devoted to this type of discussion.  So what do I think is accomplished?  Some goals relate to specific content, while others are part of a long term skill-building program.

  • students gain a deeper understanding of the specific text: shades of meaning and patterns are revealed, misunderstandings are corrected
  • students examine the text’s structure, devices, and underlying values
  • students make comparisons with their own values and experience, thereby developing a clearer understanding of themselves and the world around them
  • students build analytical thinking skills and learn to formulate questions
  • students broaden their aesthetic sensibilities and develop emotional maturity by confronting difficult material
  • students develop skills for oral expression
  • students develop their capacity for auditory comprehension
  • students develop a social sense of conversational timing and appropriate expressions of agreement and disagreement

In a few days, I should have the student version to share.  I assume students will be more focused on content than skills, but we’ll see.

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