Learning to Avoid "School Talk" (Part 1)

Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching .

- John Dewey, Democracy and Education

I've written about this before, but the concept of engaging students in conversations and engaging, as an educator, in conversational assessment, is something that I continue to investigate.

Of course, it is not easy to have meaningful and authentic conversations with students about a literary text that they're reading. First of all, they know very well that I'm an expert - even if I don't see myself as one. Therefore, they are absolutely convinced that they cannot contribute anything to the discussion that I don't already know. No matter how much I try to show them that there are still many aspects of a given topic that I am not very familiar with, students persist in their belief that teachers are experts.

So, I often try to start conversations and create activities that are just as challenging for me as they are for them. This calls for quite a bit of creativity and forces me to abandon tried and tested lesson plans.

Last month, I decided to help my students engage with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl as more than just a literary text. I wanted them to look at it as an experience, as life written down by someone their own age. They find it difficult not to treat the diary as just another "big book" that they study at school. I wanted them to think about Anne as a person and her diary as a personal record. I wanted them to have an opportunity to engage with the text and think about what Anne's words and experiences meant to them. I wanted to create an avenue for a personal connection - not an easy task in a classroom setting where every text we study is likely to be perceived as a literary text first and a personal experience second. At the same time, I also wanted to engage myself as a participant. I wanted to model the kind of personal engagement I wanted my students to experience.

It occurred to me that one way of doing this would be to create a soundtrack for the diary. So, I spent some time browsing through the SeeqPod and SkreemR archives on the mixwit page . The next day, I walked into our classroom and explained to my students how I got the idea:

I always listen to music when I read. Last night I was listening to Mozart and re-reading parts of the diary for our discussion today. Suddenly, I realized that the piece I was listening to suited the passage I was reading perfectly. It felt almost like the best soundtrack for that specific passage. So, I decided to make a list of songs and classical pieces that, in my opinion, would work well as a soundtrack for Anne's diary.

And then I showed them the soundtrack I had made and we listened to a couple of tracks. I saved my soundtrack using mixwit's highly visual interface and then embedded it in my blog in the grade eight blogosphere:

(Click here if the above widget does not work)

Then, I continued:

I want you to know that this took a long time and I found it very difficult to choose the songs. I kept searching the mixwit database for all kinds of songs that I thought would be perfect, but then I realized that the lyrics didn't really work or that the song was actually very different from how I remembered it. In other words, I had to spend quite a bit of time not just coming up with possible song titles for this but also justifying my choices.

So, I would like you to do the same. Create a mixwit account and then search the database for tracks that, in your opinion, would be perfect for a soundtrack for The Diary of a Young Girl . There's one catch, though: You have to be able to justify your decisions.

And then the conversations started. The one thing that made a huge impact was that I had challenged them to create something that I myself had already done. They could interact with my playlist and learn from the process I had engaged in prior to starting their own. They could critique my work and analyze it before embarking on their own journey of creating a soundtrack. In other words, I had entered the classroom and started the conversation as a participant. Creating my own mixwit tape placed me in the position of a learner. I eagerly shared with them my experiences of using mixwit and choosing the appropriate songs.

The point here is that what they were encouraged to do was not based on an abstract assignment description. I had entered the classroom with evidence of my own meaningful personal engagement with the diary, not just a typed handout explaining what they had to do.

This exercise led to a number of meaningful conversations with my students about Anne Frank, her writing, and our interpretations of her personality and her work. The fact that they all needed to justify their musical choices ensured that the conversations we had focused not just on the music but also, perhaps primarily, on the text. I had many one-on-one conversations with my students in which they talked about specific aspects of Anne's personality and shared their knowledge of popular music with me. They read and listened to the lyrics carefully because they realized that the choices had to be justified and couldn't be in any way offensive to the sanctity of the text written by a girl their age who perished in the Holocaust. This wasn't just about listening to music, it was about making connections, and they all realized that, in order to make them, they had to become very familiar with both the songs and the text - I had encouraged them to become experts.

I was also pleased that this activity gave all of us an opportunity to engage with the diary in a new and unique way. The students still studied the text, they still had to think about Anne as a person and a writer, but they had to do it in a context that rarely enters our classrooms, one that certainly is never present when we discuss literary texts.

I learned that entering the community as a participant allowed me to have conversations with my students that they did not perceive as instructional. Yes, they were talking to Mr.Glogowski about their songs and their reasons for picking them, but it did not feel like school talk.

Here are some examples of what they created:

... and, of course, the best thing about this was that there was no rubric or evaluation sheet. Why? Because when you listen to student soundtracks for The Diary of a Young Girl and the music works, the music fits, you just know the students did a great job ... and they do too - not because they received a rubric with a high mark, but because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher.

Learning to Listen

A row of tanks rolled by in the distance, and two planes flew in the sky above her, although she didn't see any bombs falling from them. Parvana didn't pay them any attention. Tanks were normal. Bombs were normal. Why couldn't eating be normal? They had salvaged what they could after the house was bombed. There was a bit of rice spilled on the ground. They picked it out of the dirt grain by grain. There wasn't enough water to cook the rice, and no cook-pot, so the children had to chew the rice kernels raw.

The above passage comes from Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis, a novel that I decided to read with my grade seven students this term. It was not an easy decision to make. The novel is about about a 12-year-old girl who sets off to search for her missing mother and siblings in Taliban-era Afghanistan. Needless to say, Parvana's Journey is a grim story. The cruelty of war is always in the background and it often violently encroaches upon the innocent lives of the young protagonists. Even at the very end, when some of the challenges are overcome, Deborah Ellis insists on an ending that is provisional at best. She suggests that children cannot easily escape the grasp of violence, hopelessness, and suffering that surrounds them.

Why did I decide to have my students read this novel?

  • Children today hear about war and violence all the time and yet, when we take the time to listen to how much they know, it turns out that their knowledge is fragmented. I'm hoping to give them opportunities to change that.
  • I believe that it's important to help raise awareness of what is happening right now around the world. Those of us who live in the affluent and sheltered North American suburbia need to be aware of what life is like elsewhere.
  • The media coverage of military conflicts around the world that my students are most likely to watch (the six o'clock newscast, for example) is often superficial. It reduces complex situations to laughably simplistic accounts. Children need to know that there is complexity behind these seemingly straightforward reports. I want to give my students opportunities to discover the human dimensions of these stories.
  • I also want to give them opportunities to learn how media texts are constructed, especially texts about controversial issues.

A couple of weeks ago, when I first decided to use this novel, I found myself thinking "How do I structure this unit? How do I present these difficult topics to my students?" Seemingly, they are very innocent questions. I soon realized, however, that they weren't really that innocent.

Do they not suggest that I want to present my students with a pre-defined unit? Do they not suggest that I see myself as the only architect of what we are about to study? Do they not show that I perceive myself as a content expert looking for the best way to peddle that content? I think they do.

It's fascinating to me that after three years of blogging with my students, my first instinct quite often is still to pre-package the content for them, especially if the content is new. As soon as I finished reading this novel a couple of months ago, my first instinct was to structure, organize, and plan. I also caught myself using the word "unit" as if the experience of reading and discussing literature could ever be that neatly packaged. What's worse, I attempted to carefully pre-package it for my students. For some mysterious reason, this kind of practice is deeply ingrained and I often find it difficult to abandon it. Is it because I hear these terms everyday from many of my colleagues? Is it because teaching is often reduced to neatly organized subjects and schedules?

Whatever the reason, I have decided to adopt a different strategy. After years of teaching and learning within a class blogosphere, I have learned to observe myself as a teacher, I have learned to reflect on my practice. So, when I realized that my first instinct was to pre-package learning for my students, I knew that I needed to stop and re-think my initial ideas. Instead of trying to figure out how to structure this term, I have decided to open it up to my students. I am not going to plan expectations and outcomes. I am not going to carefully organize all the learning that is about to take place. If I do, chances are there won't be too much learning in my classroom this spring. Instead of planning every activity and structuring every lesson, I want to focus on ensuring that my classroom is filled with opportunities for engagement. I want us to have conversations. I want my students to use this novel as a springboard that can lead to topics that they can truly engage with.

On my desk right now is a large pad of paper. In the centre, I wrote: "How Do I Begin?" The most important part of this process, it seems to me, is learning how to pique their interest, how to motivate them to keep reading and learning, and how to ensure that our discussions of Parvana's Journey emerge from student interactions with and about this text, and are not given to them as a pre-packaged set of handouts.

I don't know yet exactly how to begin, but I know that I will use the first couple of lessons to listen.

  • I want to listen to them as they discuss the cover

Parvana's Journey - Cover
  • I want to listen to their first reactions when they come into the classroom having read the first few chapters.
  • I want to listen as they talk about their views on war, violence, and suffering - concepts that they are fortunate enough not to have experienced.
  • I want to listen as they talk about burqas or chadors, for example, ... and how they relate them to the familiar world of their everyday lives.
  • I want to see what happens when I point out to them one tiny sentence on the back cover - "All royalties from the sale of this book will go to Women for Women, an organization that helps women in Afghanistan."

Then, we'll talk ... about whatever emerges, about what we need to learn, and about how to start. And then, we'll see, we'll see where these conversations take us.