Academic Conversations with Teenagers

I want kids to talk to me and to one another about things that matter. I select or create my curriculum with this in mind — high interest topics, relevant to teens.  And indeed, everyone is talking, and many the most voluble students do seem to be talking about things that matter — to them. Not the intentionally selected text — the dance. Not the thoughtful prompt I’ve provided, but an argument they were having in an earlier class.  When I try to direct their talk, they often give me a look that I do not like.

In “Hidden Intellectualism” by Gerald Graff, he makes the case for harnessing this natural energy that kids have for their own lives and interests, and to help them apply “the moves that matter” to their own topics: to think critically, to weigh evidence, to hear other points of view, to support points made with logical reasoning and examples.

I am reading Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s text, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding.The aim of academic conversation is to get somewhere — to move thinking along.  When I work with my students — interesting young people who know how to talk, but who don’t necessarily know how to be engaged in an academic conversation — I see that I’ve already fostered stagnation, not movement.  I see that I have to teach these structures over and over again; I need to move students, to remind kids how to make conversation happen.  Name the moves; insist on “equity of voice.”  Use that phrase with them, help them think about what it means.

Even though seniors have moved once, they have settled into their seats and do not want to move.  The juniors have not moved at all.  I have to show these kids that every seat is their seat, and that new partners are a part of life.  I have left them to their own devices far too soon, and they move toward comfort — not growth.

I have tried one activity from this text:  Structured Discussion.  I participated in one with Erich and Allison at the ERWC Leadership training; then I tried one on Day One of an ERWC workshop in August.  Erich and I organized one on the first day of class.  I’ll try it again with adults in the BTSA Backward Planning workshop this week.

These are my notes from the time I was a participant — a quickwrite that followed the discussion, reflecting mostly on the process:

My initial response to the question “What does it mean to improve thinking?” was to freeze.  The question — so straight-forward and fundamental to my work as a teacher — rendered me silent.  I floundered.  It is exactly the kind of question that I want to grapple with, but its inherent slipperiness would stymy any solo efforts to unpack it.  This has something to do with patience.  It was the conversation that opened it up.  Talking with my peers — a social activity — helped me to think through the question more fully.

My notes go on to delineate things to think about, like environment (silence, richness, talk), inputs like good texts and other people, and outputs — writing and speaking.

They need more support from me.  I cannot just say “A/B Partners” and hope that they are going to do what they need to do.

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