This post is written by Steven Dowdle. If you have a story of a lesson or project that burned down, fell over, and sunk into the swamp that you want to share because it's funny, because you need to vent, because we can learn from it, or simply because "Can you believe this!?!?" please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot a DM to @TheWeirdTeacher.
My class is heavily designed around discussion; it is, after all, called Socratic Seminar. Taking two periods a day to cover both history core and Language Arts curriculum, the high school class is a fusion of both disciplines and very much a sum greater than its parts.
In order to assess how well students have become conversant in deep, worthwhile conversations, I have an end of year final that, on the surface, is quite simple. Step one: Read a common text (in this case, a film) that is replete with profound implications and ideas. Step two: Let the kids loose on it, with some guiding questions from which they can begin.
Again, it's pretty simple. In some ways, it's the quintessence of learning: A question, and those with whom to discuss the question.
Because this is high school and things that "count on my grade" are given more attention and preparation, I model the Socratic Circle throughout the second semester. Today marked the fourth time they've had a common text, guiding questions, and a chance to talk at each other. Every time, we had a pre-write, discussion, post-write, letting the kids have their thoughts, discuss things, then see where they ended up.
For my part, I sit to one side and take careful notes about who's speaking, whether or not they reference the text (written or film, we consider it the text of the conversation regardless), and if they're jotting down notes and thoughts throughout the hour or so they have to chew on the idea. This allows me to see who is speaking a lot, who isn't, but also generate an imperfect-but-it-works grading system.
Today, the students came in for their two-hour final, during which time they watched the last 30 minutes of the film, then were given the remaining 90 minutes to dissect three potential questions. I figured, They can go with thirty minutes on each question and feel pretty satisfied that they pushed well on each idea. While every question has potential for immense exploration, the logical division of time made sense to me. Being smart, capable kids (for the most part), I assumed they'd do a similar assessment: We have about thirty minutes for each question, let's tackle them in order. In short, I thought they'd follow the way I've scaffolded, modeled, and shown them throughout the last school year.
But, hey…we all have to be reminded, every once in awhile, how we feel when we're confronted with that old adage about assuming…
Right out of the gate, the first speakers seemed interested in--for lack of a more polite, less descriptive phrase--vomiting their ideas as quickly as possible. There was a sense of urgency in what was being said, but not a sense of listening. One idea shotgunned, another was quickly loaded into the breach. The class soon closed up the wall with their thoughtful dead, choking any chance for the conversation to progress in their eagerness to speak up, speak out, and neither build upon nor listen to their peers.
Like a firework, this sound and fury quickly burned out, leaving the class with copious amounts of time and ashes where they should have had fertile fields. I'm mixing my metaphors a bit too much, here, but the point is that it took a good twenty or thirty minutes before any semblance of balance came to the class, but by then there was nowhere to go. The best ideas--the ones that were guided by the questions and the text--were glanced off of, while the kids chased less worthwhile or only tangentially connected possibilities.
As can happen, two or three voices dominated the conversation. We've been talking about and training (as it were) to keep this kind of thing to a minimum, but whatever progress we made in our last practices failed. Quiet kids had plenty of time to talk--and some of them actually jumped into the rink, a small success among such intellectual deforestation--but what they brought up was superficially accepted, then the topic shifted to whatever the more outspoken wished to discuss.
In a rare breach of protocol, I spoke up--though it was more of a "comment loud enough to be heard but is obviously only meant for the self" kind of thing--and mumbled, "This is a train wreck."
It was. It has been years since I've been so shocked at the poor work of students. I had, going into this final, great confidence for what the students would be able to put together. Previous sessions had gone well, we'd been conversing (with me as the lead moderator) the whole year long, and some of the students had even done miniature lessons where they conducted the discussion. So what went wrong?
Strangely enough, I think it was the writing. Due to time restraints, we skipped the pre-write step of the experience, which is something that I know I ought not to do. However, thanks to a mismanagement of time, I didn't direct the students to do some preparation. Admittedly, the film wasn't over yet, so some of the greatest points weren't something that they could invest in. Nevertheless, the skipping of that formative moment, I think, made a tangible difference.
I've noticed this when I've been asked to talk to groups and "lead a discussion" about something: Without priming the pump, nothing works the way it ought to. I think of stand-up comedians and live bands. There's a dual reason for opening acts: One is to help the exposure of less known artists, but the larger purpose is to warm up the crowd. The kids didn't get a warm-up act. Thrown in cold, they floundered.
So, lesson learned. THAT didn't work, but I'm hopeful that I can improve the experience.
Next year, of course.