Striking up a Conversation

When a fire hydrant speaks to you, what kind of an accent does it have?

My idea was fairly simple. Two problems stilted our class discussions in my last classes: 1) Students looked to me for confirmation/approval, and 2) students were hesitant to contribute their ideas. I wanted to eliminate these two hindrances and see whether conversation would develop.

To prepare for today’s class, my students read a chapter from Greene and Lidinsky’s From Inquiry to Academic Writing. This chapter, the second in the text, discussed how to read as a writer and write as a reader. Essentially, the authors connected the two practices to show that when readers and writers keep one another in mind, they appreciate each other’s contributions all the more. Because my students have experience with reading and writing, they aren’t coming to this chapter cold. And because most of them took a writing-about-writing FYC course last semester, they have some shared vocabulary they can use to discuss rhetorical situations. (It was down-right painful to draw out that vocabulary in one class, but we got there.) I figured their starting positions held enough strength to let them experiment a bit.

I also wanted to experiment a bit with my approach to class. In an effort to give up grading and focus exclusively on feedback, I’ve decided that student papers this semester will be reviewed in 5-person workgroups and ranked according to their perceived quality. What better way to test the procedure than to use it on something as low-stakes as a reading response. So while students experimented with ideas from the chapter, I experimented with group dynamics.

Everyone was to bring in two (ish) non-binary questions regarding the reading. Binary thinking was the topic of discussion in the previous class session, so they were practicing that concept, too. Armed with these questions, my students divided into groups of 3–5 and shared their questions with one another. Their only instructions were these:

  1. Create a list of one question per student
  2. Rank the questions best to worst and be able to explain/justify your ranking

The thing I liked the most about this exercise was watching students handle exceptions. Some students brought in questions they thought could work as a research question for the semester’s project. Other students didn’t have their books yet and hadn’t done the reading. In each case, I was able to emphasize student autonomy and the goals of the course to give them direction. Asked an odd kind of question? Great. The group had to account for that in the ranking—was the odd question a creative solution or a missed opportunity? Students who didn’t do the reading were reminded of the class emphasis on participation and were challenged to find ways they could still contribute to the group—often by directing the ranking or challenging the questions to make them better.

Each of the groups understood their goals and got right down to work. Most ranked questions fairly quickly, which surprised me. I expected the ranking to be frustrating as near-ties had to be broken. Apparently, students instinctively agreed on the ranking. Some struggled to articulate the rationale (yes, yes, I’ll work on that), but groups seemed unanimous in their decisions.

After about ten minutes, I re-formed a whole-class discussion. I went group by group, asking for their top-ranked question, and I let the class know that their job was to answer the question through discussion. I was to play no role in the discussion. A few students raised hands mid-conversation, and I was able to point out that a) I didn’t ask the question, b) they were responding to another student, and c) nobody was moderating the chat. Things got briefly awkward, but then they talked.

It’s a little embarrassing to write on a public blog that I’m excited about self-propelled discussions after nearly thirteen years of teaching, but this was the third day of class, and we had some really good conversation topics. More than once, a student would lob out a question, someone would ask for it to be repeated, and the class would chuckle because of the complexity of the answer or the variety of approaches they could take to their answers. They talked about good stuff, and they managed themselves really well.

I think the exercise succeeded for two main reasons, directly related to the problems I presented at the beginning of this post. First, students didn’t look to me for confirmation. I didn’t ask the questions, and they were broad enough that there was clearly no “right answer”. To be sure, I went out of my way to avoid making eye contact with the speakers, forcing them to find someone else to meet their gaze. Second, the students weren’t necessarily presenting their own questions. It was totally low-stakes. Any hesitation about the quality of their work had already been stripped away in the ranking vetting process. Whoever spoke for the group was usually reading someone else’s question, so the motivating factor for hesitation vanished. They asked bold, valid questions and provided genuine, supported responses.

It was a good day in class.

What tricks do you use to get students to engage in meaningful whole-class conversations?