Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Student-Sustained Discussion: When Students Talk and the Teachers Listens

Allen, Sara. (1992). Student-Sustained Discussion: When Students Talk and the Teacher Listens. In N.A. Branscombe, D, Goswami, & J. Schwartz (Eds.), Students Teaching, Teachers Learning (pp. 81-92). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

Allen details the evolution of her efforts to convert teacher-initiated discussion concerning poetry into a student-sustained discussion. The author collected data from her twelfth-grade students with support from an NCTE grant. Her school was private and classes were small, though she doesn’t specify size.  Data included audio and video tapes and transcripts of student-led conversations.  She shared these transcripts with a small study group of fellow researchers connected to the Prospect Center and school in Bennington, Vermont and later shared video clips to her students.  While she states that she had no difficulty gathering data, it was difficult to determine how to effectively utilize it for change.  The most effective feedback she noted was collected in course evaluations, student journals, and oral feedback.

Students were excited by the prospect of being part of a research adventure, but were sometimes frustrated with the feeling that they wouldn’t receive the affirmation from the teacher that they had reached the “right” answer to the poem and could move on. Initially, Allen abruptly removed herself from the conversation , but would provide feedback on the students’ conversation. Some students felt liberated, while others felt they were sitting in a room having a conversation about nothing. If there is no right answer, what’s the point? One student insisted that it was more important to seek truth than to construct a meaning as a group (p.87).  Her first challenge was that students had difficulty in recognizing the validity of how the meaning the were able to collectively construct.

Her second challenge was that the conversations did not always represent the  class’s understanding. Sometimes a few students would dominate the conversation, while others would retreat to journal in order to avoid confrontation. Allen recognized that they needed more guidance and that the most effective means of providing that came in two major contributions: a) listening to the students to ask the questions they want to ask, but are afraid to voice, and b) showing students the videotape of their own conversation and stating their observations. Once students were aware of their own behaviors within the conversations, she was able provide quick, coach-like feedback to them on how they participated in the conversation. This seemed to be the most effective “switch” in student ownership of the conversation.  As students became aware of their interactions during conversations, they also seemed to further understand how they constructed meaning from a text, from themselves, and from one another.

Final course evaluations included comments such as, “At first I felt shaky about accepting my classmates’ idea and I always needed the  ‘OK’ from the teacher. Now I accept ideas more willingly at my own discretion which has also helped me become more confident about my thoughts” (p.89). Another student noted, “This course in not about English, it’s about improving one’s ability to speak his or her mind.” Allen concluded with apparent pleasure at the students’ ownership of their learning, but does remark that she would have liked to scaffold the process of students relinquishing themselves from the traditional model of literary discussion more effectively (p.91).

I appreciated that she mentioned her failures, as well as her successes. The frustration her students experienced felt genuine.  I understood their frustration through the detailed experience of the discussions that occurred in the classroom, but I would also have liked to see some of the journal writing the did to hear more of their voices. The process she shared felt genuinely murky and more like the kind of research that I can envision undertaking. Rather than offering a neat and tidy path, she shared what she tried that worked and what didn’t.

I found her conclusions to be very interesting. She noted that she wanted to scaffold the relinquishment of power to the students better, and I would have enjoyed hearing more of the students’, as well as her own, thoughts about that.  I wanted to know more about what worked.  Additionally, I wold have like to know a bit more about her students’ backgrounds. She noted that the boys were AP-familiar and that the girls were less academically inclined, which created an imbalance in the classroom, but it would be helpful to have a richer understanding of who these students were.

I was immediately drawn to this article because of her opening line: “Second semester seniors are impossible to teach!” (p. 81) I know that it’s natural for seniors to feel the need to leave the next when their college acceptance letters arrive, but my hope is that  if they are still engaged in self-directed and meaningful learning, they will still attain valuable skills, knowledge, and habits before graduation. Because I am hoping to make the senior year a more meaningful experience in which students feel empowered to take charge of their learning, I connected immediately with Allen’s desire to put her students in charge of unearthing meaning in poetry.

This piece made me feel a little bit better about taking risks and being okay with what worked and what doesn’t when moving through the research process. She reminded me that students do need scaffolding and the tools to move forward when I invite them into the design of the course. I would love for my students to direct discussions and to feel that they are in charge of what they will learn, but I was reminded that this can’t be too startling for them. When Allen discussed how removing herself from the conversation was not immediately effective, I could relate to the discomfort of watching students squirm uncomfortably because I had invited them to do something they weren’t prepared to do.  I enjoyed learning that students did leave the course feeling more confident about their ability to negotiate an understanding of a text and would love to follow up on how she decided to scaffold the process further in the years that followed her research.

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