The Having of Grand Conversations

“I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time and arguments.” So declares Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince and Other Tales—but yesteryear’s teachers, schooled in the art of the quiet, orderly classroom where they talked and students listened, may have embraced Wilde’s quip as the gold standard. Lobbing faux questions, teachers waited for students to swat back the right answers, much like a game of “instructional ping pong,” as Frank Serafini says.

The end result was “sit and get” instruction immortalized in the monotone drone of actor Ben Stein as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Standing at the blackboard, Stein delivers his dry-as-dust lecture, pausing only long enough to probe for the right answer (“Anyone, anyone?”) before providing the answer himself—while his students, nearly comatose with boredom, struggle to stay awake. 

Today’s classrooms, guided by the Common Core speaking and listening standards, which call for rich collaborative conversation, should be anything but silent. Think Dead Poets Society. The teacher, portrayed by Robin Williams, asks penetrating questions about art, poetry, and life. His students, swept up in genuine intellectual inquiry, leap into the conversation with their own flurry of questions and ideas. There’s no one right answer; everyone’s opinion counts.

Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds call this a grand conversation—much like the spirited discussions we enjoy with our friends after we’ve seen a provocative film. Everyone shares his or her own interpretation of the movie, comparing and contrasting it with other films they’ve seen, reviewing memorable moments, analyzing the characters’ motives, arguing over the plot twists, and so on.

When we serve as thoughtful facilitators of classroom talk, demonstrating the quality comments that reflect critical analysis, and provide the space and structure that invite our students to share their own thoughts and questions, we move away from a mind-numbing IRE discourse pattern (teacher initiates, students respond, teacher evaluates) to an invigorating interactive pattern best characterized as I-R-R-R-R, where our opening remark is then followed by a series, or chaining, of student responses.

This is the power of collaborative conversation. Students learn to delve deep into intellectual inquiry: to explore issues, share interpretations, and build on each other’s evolving meanings. As Hilda Taba once wrote, it’s the difference between “covering the curriculum and uncovering the curriculum” (for more on Taba’s work see: http://www.rfwp.com/samples/conceptdevelopmentp1-15.pdf )—or ping ponging across pages of text versus challenging students to wrestle with the meaning of a passage, consider alternative interpretations, and generate new questions that will open up new lines of inquiry.

As you work to spark collaborative conversations with your own students, what techniques and structures do you use to assure your classroom sounds more like Robin Williams’s and less like Ben Stein’s?

For more on the nature of interactive talk, text, and teaching, check out Maryann Eeds and Ralph Peterson’s Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action and Frank Serafini’s book, Interactive Comprehension Strategies: Fostering Meaningful Talk About Text - both available through Scholastic.