As a classical Christian teacher, you may have been told that Socratic discussions are supposed to be a staple in your pedagogical tool belt. Some teachers may look at leading discussions with excitement, having taught and experienced this mode of learning before. Some, however, may be insecure. The word discussion may bring back unpleasant memories of silent circles or tedious, contentious roundtables. Even if you have experienced good discussions, you might not know how to engage the silent students, or you might be at a loss for how to lead students through awkward silences.
While I think classical Christian schools are right to encourage discussions, I would like to think of them more as ‘conversations.’ While the term ‘discussion’ is not bad, I think this term has been hijacked and abused, applied to situations that are not discussions but are more exactly arguments or lectures with a few questions. On the other hand, conversation comes from the English word converse, which has a Latin root: conversare; con means ‘with’ and versare comes from the word vertere, meaning ‘to turn.’ This puts the word conversation in its root form meaning ‘a turning with.’ I find this etymology helpful in painting a picture for what classroom conversations should be, calling to mind images of dancers turning together in a ballroom, or oxen yoked together, plowing furrows and turning together to start a new row. These images help us to understand what is at the heart of the word conversation. By considering images like these made into metaphors for class discussions, we will arrive at a deeper understanding of the goal of discussions.
I have participated in and led bad and good discussions, and from this experience, I have learned a great deal about this pedagogical method. First, we will consider some metaphors in order to examine these bad discussions and good conversations. Then, I want to give you some guiding principles for facilitating discussions. Ultimately, I want to propose some solutions to common issues that I have picked up along the way.
A Series of Metaphors
The Microwave Popcorn Discussions
These discussions are silent at first. You may get a few pops of talk, but for the most part, it is just the teacher and a couple of other students going back and forth. Perhaps the teacher tries to initiate some other kernels into opening up, but they reject such gestures and sit in silence. Consequently, the teacher decides to let the conversation go in whatever direction the others take it. This suddenly leads to wild, off-topic, completely unrelated popping, yet the teacher lets it go. Popcorn is better than kernels, right? The teacher and the class maybe even realize the chaos of what just happened; it didn’t help anyone understand anything. At least it looks like something has happened, even though it mostly consisted of hot air.
The Foosball Discussions
These discussions are fast-paced and aggressive—at least for a few people. The rest of the class just sit backs and looks on, sometimes in mild amusement, and sometimes in indifference. Maybe one or two observers tap in and out as they feel like it. It’s just foosball—there’s no real skill involved, but it also doesn’t welcome other participants. All that’s required in foosball discussions is a constant back-and-forth. There’s no real skill required to participate, and no deep insights needed. If it were real soccer, there would be analytical plays and creative new strategies invented on the spot amongst teammates. For the foosball discussion, all that is needed is a blind aggression that spins the handles with vigor until the plastic players hit something and win the argument. Maybe the teacher is one of the players, or maybe just an observer. If the dinky plastic ball is going back and forth, no matter how sporadically, then it’s obviously working—right?
The Ballroom Dancing Conversation
These conversations seem like organized chaos, but all participants are intentionally engaged. Regardless of how unrehearsed the activity may be, if the members have the basic tools of ballroom dancing (or conversations), they can fall right in with the crowd. It is easy to fall in line with these conversations because it is not a one-man show; if people mess up or fumble, the dance will still go on as long as they can laugh at themselves. In fact—ballroom dancing is fun. It might be a little messy at times, but the overall order prevails. To maintain order, the dancers have to look to those around them. This way they can help each other out, leading their fellow members in the right direction. While onlookers might question the point, the participants engage because they know the beauty and enjoyment of being with others.
The Soccer Match Conversation
These conversations may look slow-paced, complicated, or carefully plotted to the outsider, but those who participate realize how much they are improvising. Soccer match conversations are collaborative and creative. While there are set plays and positions (or questions and roles), at least 80% of the match is contrived on the spot. The players must be knowledgeable. Participants must be able to read the field and work well with their teammates. The goal of the soccer match conversation is obvious, and when a player scores, he or she is celebrated; however, that player did not achieve success alone. They needed their teammates to help them achieve the goal, and the whole team shares in victory.
The Goal of Conversations
I hope you find these metaphors helpful. These metaphors describe discussions as they tend to play out, but they also describe conversations as they could be. I hope these metaphors encourage teachers to think of this as an engaging way of learning and not as an activity to merely check off the list. While it might be easier in one sense to list off bad and good qualities of a discussion, I think this can be reductionistic. Discussions can start to feel like any quantitative teaching strategy that is easy to slap a number grade on—but conversations should be more than that. If the goal is to simply get each student to talk at least three times, and the class knows that from the beginning, then what is the point of making more than three comments? I don’t think giving our students or teachers a specific number of times to participate helps them to understand the point of conversations. I hope these metaphors might give you a sense of what that purpose is.
In the first two metaphors the goals are clear (popped popcorn, points won). These goals are easy to quantify, too. It is easy to find the few remaining kernels, or students who did not talk; it is easy to count the participation points and know who participated in the foosball discussion and who didn’t. In a sense, these kinds of discussions would be easy to grade if you were going merely based on the quantity of verbal participation because they are only looking for something externally measurable. True conversations cannot be externally measured, though. Consider the last good conversation you had—with a spouse, with a friend or group of friends. Was that conversation good because you all spoke three times at minimum? No, you likely saw that the conversation was good because there was a depth of understanding reached or a shared experience that was satisfying. The goodness of a conversation is gauged in quality, not quantity. Our classroom discussions should aim for this, but that has become impossible because we have lost the art of conversation.
When I speak of conversation as an art, it brings to my mind one of the main philosophical conversations that surrounds art. What is the purpose of art? In one sense, there is no purpose to art; it simply exists because beautiful artworks are good. Art does not have to have a neat and tidy message to convey in order to serve a purpose. Art can simply be beautiful to look at. Consider God’s creation of the world. He made it and said it was good; He didn’t make the world because he needed it. We, as sub-creators, do the same when we make art. Still, many Christians would say that God made the world to bring glory to Himself, and so the same should be true for our artwork. Some Christians will only like artwork that ultimately has the goal of communicating something about God. While such artwork isn’t bad, it cannot be the only qualification for good art. While this may seem like an irrelevant tangent, it is necessary to consider as we look to the goal of conversations, for conversation as an art holds the dual purpose of communication and enjoyment.
Sometimes the goal of our classroom conversation is clear: the class, as a whole, needs to arrive at an understanding that it previously did not have. This is often the case with difficult philosophical texts or poetry. Just as you could ask any member at the end of this kind of discussion what is happening in a certain poem, you could certainly ask someone at the end of a soccer match, “what was the score?” They would be able to answer you, and you would know whether the answer was right or wrong by looking back to the source.
There are other times, though, where conversations are thought provoking, fun, and leave participants with unanswered questions; while they understand some things, they by no means think they have figured it all out. The ballroom dancing conversation has resulted in an invaluable experience because each individual has considered the matter more deeply and from different perspectives. If you ask each student what he or she got out of the conversation, each might give a different answer, and that is okay. It was still a good discussion.
I think it is most important for teachers to hold in their minds these goals of discussions. Once we can see the finished product, we can start to examine its constituent parts and consider how it was made.
Guiding Principles for Facilitating Discussions
If you have been around classical Christian education long, you may have heard terms like Socratic discussions, or Socratic seminars. Why do we use the term “Socratic”? If you’ve been reading your Greek philosophy, you will recognize the name Socrates as the teacher of Plato, as well as the central figure of Plato’s dialogues who serves as his mouthpiece more or less. At first glance, it sounds nice to name what we are doing after a Greek philosopher. If you’ve read Plato, though, you might be left with some questions. Isn’t Socrates a pagan—sentenced to death? When you consider even the way the dialogues are written, such as The Republic, isn’t Socrates mostly lecturing, with a few questions scattered throughout? Calling our discussions Socratic without understanding why can be confusing and misleading. However, if we understand who Socrates was as a philosopher, then I believe he does prove to be a good model for teachers.
Socrates asked questions of people who thought themselves to be experts. You can imagine how well he was received for doing this; such actions ultimately led to him being sentenced to death for ‘inventing new gods’ and ‘corrupting the youth.’ While Socrates always claimed to not know the answers himself, he seemed to at least know the wrong answers, or answers that would not logically work. By questioning people’s basic assumptions, he aimed to show them how insufficient their own wisdom was. Personally, I find this to be a great pedagogical goal: show students how insufficient their own wisdom is. However, this goal must be tempered by a humble disposition. We as teachers have to realize how this applies to ourselves as well. We should be willing to lead others in an investigation for the truth—not because we have arrived at a full understanding of Truth, but because we are looking for it, too.
In Plato’s “Apology”, he writes of Socrates’ defense to the city of Athens. After being sentenced to death, Socrates accepts this sentence. He seems to not be too surprised or concerned; in fact, he recognizes that such a thing would happen to a gadfly like him. A gadfly, or a horsefly, bites animals, and as a result, the animals move. While this might seem like an extremely unpleasant creature to identify with as a teacher, I think it could be helpful for teachers to keep in mind when considering their role in discussion. When we sit down to a conversation with students, we should be the instigators (at least at first). We should spur on the conversation when it falls silent. We should arouse interest with a new take when we notice the students are drifting off.
I will propose some ways to instigate conversation and interaction soon, yet there is one important warning for the teacher as a Socratic gadfly. The difficulty for the teacher lies in how to incite and challenge without frustrating or confusing students to the point of giving up. The Greeks have the term aporia, which signifies an impasse or puzzle that students or listeners often reach. People often want to avoid hitting these walls, but this is an important part of Socratic learning; experiencing aporia is often the part of discussions that leads students to reconsider their assumptions. Students may reach an impasse of sorts very quickly in a conversation and work through it well together, or teachers may have to bring students to this point of aporia. Teachers should let students struggle with aporia before jumping in to guide them through it. However, if we leave them without any guidance, aporia will lead to apathy. It is a fine line to tread, but an important one for Socratic learning.
How do you ask good questions? This was, and still is, one of my main quandaries when leading discussions. There’s no formula to it, but it is also easy to see what doesn’t work. We have all asked the “What’s in my pocket?” type of question where there is one right answer that none of the students know. You have also likely been a student on the receiving end of this question, thinking “I have no idea what answer you are looking for.” This type of question can’t possibly facilitate good discussion because it is entirely dependent on what the teacher is looking for—it does not get the students in on the quest. Questions should be more open-ended. Asking questions that lead to good discussion depends on the topic and the class of students before you; a question that may ignite good conversation with one section could fall flat with another section. While there is no strict recipe to follow to produce the perfect question every time, there are some general principles that can get help you figure out good questions.
Start with comprehension—but go beyond it. Before you can analyze or discuss the application of a work you must be able to understand it. Some teachers might skip this step consistently, and other teachers may not move past basic comprehension. (I have learned the folly of going to either extreme myself, as a teacher and a student.) When comprehension is skipped, it leaves free rein for students to lead a discussion who have no business leading. It turns into the blind leading the blind. Sometimes students do this with pure intentions because they are simply talkative, but sometimes students take advantage of the fact that no one else is speaking up and lead the conversation in a different direction to cover up the fact that they did not read. This leaves the students who did read frustrated. This is why it is often good to at least start with more basic comprehension questions. It can correct any confusion and ground the conversation in the work.
For some teachers, comprehension questions are the only questions they really know how to ask. These questions have concrete right-or-wrong type of answers. They can be backed up by a line from a page. When works are fairly simple to understand, though, teachers should move quickly through comprehension. Most historical and literary narratives fall into this category (although epic poems and stream of consciousness are the most difficult narratives to read, so take more time with them). Any philosophical work will take more time to comprehend; discerning the main argument of such a work is a great question for discussion. While some conversations need to camp out on a complex passage to make sense of it, a discussion should go deeper than just achieving the same level of understanding. Once your class has achieved an understanding of what is being said, ask them to synthesize, evaluate, and/or consider the implications with questions like: Does this claim connect to one of their previous points, or to another work? Is this argument true or false? What are the implications of this point of view?
When you are moving beyond comprehension, ask analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application questions. While these categories aren’t all-encompassing, I believe they are helpful starting points for coming up with your own questions. I often work through these categories, trying several different kinds of questions and phrasings. I also try to come up with various answers for each question as I ask it. Sometimes I write these answers out, but I mostly just think through them to save myself time. This is my rule of thumb for question development: the more variety of responses I can think of to a question, the better.
While I may come up with sixteen different potential questions for discussion, I will often narrow it down and start with only four or five questions. It is important to not overwhelm them with too many questions at first. I keep the rest in a notebook to ask if our conversation moves quickly, or if the other questions prove to be duds. We normally get to all of the questions in some form or fashion. Sometimes I give students a few questions ahead of time to think or write on. I always type these questions out and put them on a PowerPoint slide (or I write them on the board) so that students can read them and refer back to them throughout the discussion. It is easy to miss or forget a question as a student, so having the questions before the students keeps the discussion focused.
In terms of synthesis questions, I encourage students to connect ideas to history and the bible—these are important connections! The students may make these connections on their own, but students will often miss them unless they have been trained to make these connections. It is important for the teacher to be the master learner here. When I know what my students are studying in other classes, I can help them make these connections. I also look for connections that are already there; I do not try to force a biblical reading if, after research, I find it has no basis.
Have the students ask their own questions. This is such a crucial part of fostering good conversation. When students come with their own questions and responses, it means that they have been attentive readers. They are better equipped to participate and talk with others. When they have their own questions, they are now more personally invested in what they are doing. It is no longer a time for them to talk about some arbitrary questions thrown out by the teacher—it is time for them to take responsibility for the conversation and think. When students bring their own questions, they are seldom very good at first. Many tend to have the same question because that is all they could come up with. That is okay. I tell students that they are always welcome to come with as many comprehension questions as they want—we will start off with those in discussions. I typically ask them to come up with one or two questions for discussion in the same categories that I listed previously, and they have to try to answer their own questions. Writing responses gets them to think through the strength of a question. I give them the same rule of thumb I give myself (although modified): the more you can write in response to a question, the better.
The Authority of the Text
When facilitating a conversation around a text, there is only one important authority in the room: the text itself.
This statement might make some teachers uncomfortable. Many teachers, myself included, often feel insecure and want to prove their authority. That is why discussions are difficult: we have to relinquish control. However, relinquishing control does not mean letting anything go. There are still wrong answers in discussion—comments that twist the meaning by taking quotes or plot points out of contexts, which is a fallacy. Instead of squashing every wrong interpretation yourself, use questions and let the students figure out their error on their own. Let the text be the authority. Here’s a hypothetical example:
Student: “Frankenstein created the monster to get back at his father. He just wanted to get rid of his family.”
Teacher: “What makes you say that?”
Student: “I don’t know, I just think he was mad his dad wouldn’t let him read that book once.”
Some students agree, some disagree. The conversation goes on, and then “Frankenstein’s revenge” theory is brought back up.
Teacher: “Where do we see we him being bitter towards his father? How does he talk about the rest of his family?
Silence for a moment. Another student speaks up and rebuts the previous theory with textual evidence. The conversation continues.
In this example, it might have been easier for the teacher to simply say, “No, that’s wrong.” If that had been the case, the student who proposed the theory would still be left disagreeing. Likewise, such an act would be communicating to the students that wrong answers and incorrect theories have no place in discussion, and if you are wrong, you will get embarrassingly shut down. When students earnestly put their questions or theories out there, it is a vulnerable act. No one wants to be shut down harshly, and if this happens, it only serves to encourage silence in the classroom. Therefore, the teacher and class should never be discouraging, writing a question or theory off as stupid (unless it is clearly proposed as a joke, in which case, laughter is a great thing). Every question or theory should point the entire class back to the text. Teachers need to be patiently persistent in encouraging students to pursue understanding a work by reviewing the text.
If the text is an authority, then a discussion about a text should lead to the students quoting it and referencing it often. Another discussion preparation strategy I have is to ask my students to find quotes to bring to discussion. Often times this is paired with the question writing assignment, but sometimes I just ask them to share a line from the reading that they liked. We discuss why we like the prose or the poetry—what is beautiful about it. I hope that such an activity could keep us admiring, not merely dissecting.
Conversations have more longevity when they are centered on a text. Without that sort of foundation, it could go anywhere without any real reason to return to the starting point—especially if other topics seem more fun. However, this doesn’t mean a discussion should only be one-track minded. A good conversation might look like the following: digging into the text, occasionally wandering away to make broader or more personal connections, returning to the text, then enjoying other related fields. Each teacher has different gauges for how comfortable they are with getting off topic, and as the master learner, it is up to you. However, for the sake of your students, discuss what they have prepared for. Do not take the time to get on whatever soap box you choose; otherwise, they might learn that their reading isn’t really that important, or that it is more enjoyable to try to get you on rabbit trails. In order to be ready to facilitate conversations, always go into class with a fresh reading of what you assigned. Understand the text to the best of your ability. This might mean you have to read, reread, and look up other sources to ensure you understand the work to the best of your ability. While you are not preparing for a lecture, you are preparing to explain any difficulties in the work and guide the students to the most significant passages. When you do this work in preparation, you as the teacher will be more excited for your class conversations.
There is one final, significant portion of facilitating conversations that is important: listening. At the beginning of the semester when I am teaching discussion skills to my freshmen classes, I make a point to listen more than I talk in discussions. As the semester progresses, I try to talk less than my quietest student. While this is difficult because I am sometimes asked a question directly and no one else can answer it, it is a helpful goal for me. I have to keep it consciously at the front of my mind, or else, I will simply jump in and take control. What I’ve found is that when I listen to my students, they get better at listening to each other. Sometimes it’s even as simple as saying, “What was that John?” in the middle of a hectic interchange that enables shy students to be heard. Students start to imitate this quality, especially when I encourage the most exuberant participants to ask the quieter students questions. When students start listening to each other, they start to embody good conversation. Class discussions should not be about just having everyone say words aloud around each other. Conversations require people listening and responding to each other—not repeating each other, not bouncing from topic to topic.
The more I have made a point to listen to my students, the more encouraged I have been by them. I think it is easy to fall into the “us vs. them” mentality as a teacher, but when I hear what they say, I hear my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We are often not too different. Most of my students are much more spiritually mature than I was when I was their age. What’s more, the more I listen to what they have to say, the more I understand their point of view. Through conversation, we are being formed and challenged by each other. It’s a life-giving activity.
With all of the metaphors and principles in mind, you will still likely face some issues facilitating conversations that these pages have not quite prepared you for. I have thought of some of the most common situations I encounter. While I have suggestions for how to deal with them, you might get creative and come up with your own solutions. I can only stress that when you encounter an issue that throws a wrench in your conversation, you should handle it with good humor and grace so that students don’t walk away frustrated.
The Teacher as Middleman
When I first start training students in discussion, I always emphasize the importance of students looking at each other. It is subtle, but who a student looks at when he or she is speaking communicates a motive. When a student looks at the teacher while sharing a question or comment, they are subtly looking for the teacher’s approval. I will often look down at my notepad to avoid eye contact, with hopes that the student will self-correct. Sometimes I have to remind students to look at their classmates if they want them to answer their questions. In order for students to look at each other, they obviously have to be facing each other. This is why my classroom is always arranged in a round-table seating style. If your space cannot always be arranged in this way, go through the trouble of asking students to rearrange the desks, or simply sit on the floor each time.
While it is not good for the teacher to be the middleman—the one who receives and fields all questions and comments—it is good for the teacher to be an active, yet silent, presence. This is important when students are learning how to discuss well. However, once students are well-seasoned in this art, teachers can remove themselves almost entirely from the dynamic. This really is awesome to watch, but I have to admit, I like being part of the conversations too much to bow out completely. It is always good for the teachers to be mentally present to mediate in conversations, though. While it’s not good to be a middleman, a teacher occasionally has to referee.
Awkward Student Dynamics
It is easier to get everyone to engage in a conversation if the group is smaller. There’s nowhere to hide. Sometimes a class is too big for all of the students to get a word in. When I am training my 9th graders in discussions, I often start them out in small groups of six or seven, and I let the other half of the class listen and take notes on the others’ discussion. Then I ask them to switch roles. This gets students comfortable with talking to each other. As the year continues, I don’t separate students into groups anymore; I find that twelve to fifteen is not too big for a discussion, especially once they all know each other well.
No matter how big or small your class is, you are working with different personality types. When you have students with big personalities who are very talkative, you are going to have to give them specific feedback. If someone is dominating conversations consistently, speak to them one-on-one about what you would like them to do instead. Later, if this happens again in discussion, I normally thank them for their enthusiasm, but request that they only ask questions for the rest of the class. If they cannot manage to do that, I will “mute” them for a time so that others can get a word it, but this is not normally necessary (and always done in good humor). Sometimes there is the opposite issue—there’s always at least one student who does not speak, no matter how much you encourage or ask. I always address these students one-on-one, asking them why they won’t speak. While you’ll need to address these issues on a case by case basis, I always encourage these students to come prepared and tell them that I am going to ask them to start us off with a question the next day. It is important to note that quiet students aren’t necessarily disengaged; these students are often listening and thinking more than the talkative students are. Sheer volume of input does not equate meaningful engagement. Still, it’s important to let these students know that you see them and want to hear from them.
Just as class sizes vary, you will often find that different ratios of girls to boys impacts the conversation. Sociologist Deborah Tannen has studied this extensively in her work and has helpfully described the different communication styles of boys and girls. Boys tend to be competitors; they want to be right or to prove others wrong, and to them this competition is fun. They like to turn conversations into arguments, discussions into debates. Consequently, they do not like to be interrupted; Tannen noted that they found it rude and demeaning. Girls, on the other hand, tend to share stories—but not to one-up the other. When one girl shares a story or comment, another will often chip in with a related story or comment; this is not to copy or compete, but to make a connection with this person. They communicate to build relationships. As a result, they tend to feel close to those they are talking to, as if they are working together, and so they tend to “overlap” each other in conversation. The issue is that this “overlapping” often looks like interruption to boys. The differences between boys’ and girls’ communication styles are good and complementary. We need both aspects, a clear point and a relatable story, to have a good conversation. Likewise, students will need to learn grace with each other when it comes to the issue of “interrupting” and “overlapping.” This is where the teacher as referee can come in and give guidance in the conversation.
Some teachers may be able to pay attention and remember who talked clearly, but I personally struggle to focus on this. My mind wanders off thinking about the reading, or another comments or connections. I started doing conversation maps, or tracing lines between students’ names when they talked to other students, to keep up with the conversations. I also would make notes of good questions, quotes, or comments they made. Conversation maps may help some to focus their listening skills and keep track of who has talked and how much. Some may not need this method though. I’ve found this works better than tally marks, which students seem to see as points, which to them translates into the more points, the better grade. With a conversation map, they can tell who has talked—often too much to each other—and who needs to be engaged more. This also helps me to approach the talkative or quiet ones with some evidence for why their actions should change.
The Awkward Silence
Many will call it awkward silence, but I don’t find it too awkward. Whenever there is that silence at the beginning of the conversation, I just smile. If the students start laughing, I let it fizzle out. I tell them that I’m not bothered by the silence—and really, I’m not. Silence is good. In silence there is time to rest, think, reflect, build up the courage, exercise self-control, show responsibility, and more. Just because there is silence, it does not mean that nothing is happening.
I like silence so much that before we start discussions most days, I give students a minute or two to look back over their questions and notes, the book itself, or just let think about the questions before we start talking. When you initiate the conversation, if there is silence, don’t cut it short. Count to twenty (you normally won’t need that long before someone starts talking). If you do end up counting to twenty full seconds of silence, you might have an issue, though. I always start with making eye contact with my students and checking to see if they are okay. Sometimes there is something palpably wrong that you have to address before the conversation. Other times, a simple “does the question make sense?” or “was there an issue with the reading?” will get them talking honestly. If there is a negative attitude causing the silence, then that is more of a discipline issue with obstinance. While this has never happened to me, I know of students who have done this; I would encourage you to talk to your principal about this if it happens to you.
There’s one more silence that arises in a conversation after the time of initiation. I call this the dead-end silence. Sometimes you can get out of this by playing the Devil’s advocate. I find this necessary especially when students have settled on an overly simplified answer. However, sometimes I take the dead-end silence as a conversation’s natural end. There’s no law in the universe that says a conversation must last a full 50 minutes to be a good conversation. When the conversation draws to a close before class ends, I ask them to recap in writing the conversation and reflect on what they discussed. Of course, the days where conversation spills out of your class into the hallways feel good, but just because a class ends in silence and written reflection doesn’t mean the conversation is bad. Silence can be good.
Evaluating and Grading
As with all assignments and activities, feedback is crucial. Students will never improve at the skill of discussion without specific feedback. Sometimes they will get instant feedback from their classmates, like “Good question!” or “Good point!” However, you as the teacher need to tell them what they are doing well. I challenge my students to evaluate themselves in terms of their discussion involvement, and I pair that with my feedback. This helps them become more self-aware, and it gives them specific goals to improve in.
I give feedback first. I give grades second, and only because I am required to. I find the whole notion of grading discussion to be preposterous. Not only is developing a score card for each student everyday tedious and frustrating, but it does not help them learn. It can lead us to giving talkative students who say nothing of substance more points or wrestling over how to rank each comment made by each student. Grading conversations in much detail is exhausting and unhelpful.
When I have to put grades in the gradebook, I usually review my discussion notes for at least a couple of class periods. I usually give students a 100% if they spoke at all meaningfully and made an effort to listen. If they didn’t speak at all about the book after several discussions, or if they consistently interrupted their classmates and dominated the discussion, then they have demonstrated a pattern of disengagement or distraction, and I need to check in with them. Consequently, the percentage of points I can record in the grade book couldn’t be 100%. (To get unfortunately technical, I might make two discussions a 50 point assignment; a student who is not participating well might get a 40/50, and if the student makes no effort to improve after my feedback, the percentage might lessen.) Grades can be like a tool that calls attention to an issue, but I do not like to resort to grades as my only form of communication. If a student isn’t participating, you shouldn’t use grades as a motivator for discussions. Having a parent-student-teacher conference is often the best course of action for such a situation.
I’ll leave you with this thought: Do you grade conversations you have with your friends? No. You do not need to because a good conversation is a reward in and of itself.
Conversations are more than just an assignment for the gradebook. They are a pedagogical tool that enables formation. Talking about reading helps us grow in our understanding of the work, but this repeated practice helps us to also grow in our love of discussing substantive things, the the virtue of characters or the goodness of God. While we might not be able to cover everything in our discussions, I have found that my goal is to give students a good first reading of a work. You don’t really start to understand a work deeply until you’ve read it several times—and I think interesting conversations will encourage a second read, or even third read, later on.
I always emphasize to students how important it is for them to come ready with questions. While it might be tempting to just read SparkNotes, I want them to realize that they are capable of reading a work and wrestling through the uncertainty of a first reading. By reading and asking questions of a work, they are taking up for themselves the tools of learning—the same tools the teacher is using. Hopefully they will become just as deft with these tools as we are. If, however, you feel like you are not close to mastering this pedagogical tool, then practice. Get together with your faculty and read a book or a poem and discuss it. If you haven’t already, practice the lost art of conversation with your colleagues—you’ll come to love it.