Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Podcasts & Classroom Conversations

As is my habit, as I drove home from work, I was listening to a podcast, Slate’s Audio Book Club. Because we are in the middle of studying Ta-Nehisi Coate’s recent book Between the World and Me, I wanted to supplement my reading with the opinions of Slate journalists that I respect: Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent, Katy Waldman, a staff writer, and Meghan O'Rourke who writes about culture, and she has recently published a memoir about her mother’s death Their podcast conversation was smart. Erudite. Insightful. The journalists manifested a breadth and depth of knowledge that added so much to my reading of Coates’ epistolary memoir. 

Listening to them reminded me of being in graduate school seminar, where we tested our ideas, took (and changed!) tentative positions about an author’s content, and sought to find the significance of the texts before us. 

I felt pleased that in my own reading of Coates' book, I had picked up on several of the themes the journalists brought up: embodiment, abstract citizenship, social construction of race, memory, and the narrative of American exceptionalism. Hooray! 

At the same time, I felt challenged, as if a step behind their conversation. That's exactly how I felt when I entered seminar (and admittedly, more than once during my grad school experience). Back then, I struggled to keep up with their conversation. My peers made this type of talk seem so easy, natural. What I realize now is that my classmates didn't just stay "in" the text they were discussing; they weren't simply interpreting line-by-line. Instead, their lines of reasoning had to do with the connections they discovered - and forged - between the text and other texts, and between the text and their own personal and academic interests. And they seemed to know a secret set of rules about how conversation should take place. 

I imagined myself sitting in the studio with the journalists, professionals at the top of their game. I imagined being ill equipped to keep up, and not just because of pace. I would both be “in” the conversation and lost. There, but not quite! Just like in grad school, I would pay close attention, so much so I would break into a sweat. Their pace and back-and-forth between themselves and an array of topics they brought into the conversation would simultaneously exhilarate and enervate me. The journalists, as did my seminar classmates, seemed to understand a particular "code" or set of rules for classroom discussion that I didn't know. 

I imagine many students experience a similar sensation when we attempt to have discussions about a reading. I’ve been experimenting with some of the ideas Donald Finkel promotes in his book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, and I do see that the discussions are getting more substantive. Students are beginning to trust that our discussions aren’t “gotcha - sessions” where I’m trying to bust someone for not reading the text. Safety is important. And now that their participation suggests they feel safe, I struggle with how to encourage more meaningful discussion. How do I get them to effectively approach discussions? And how do I get them to comprehend what good discussions looks like?

Click here for link to the podcast.

Though I was listening to the podcast to deepen my reading of Coates’ text, I realized something (again!) about teaching: I cannot expect students to know what it looks and feels like to be in meaningful, thought provoking seminar unless I showed them. I could describe one. I could cajole and lecture them over the “genre expectations” of this type of classroom talk. But a concrete illustration would be much more effect. In other words, don’t just tell, show!

Here are a few of the things I heard the book club members do that made their discussion so rich and robust:
  1. Discussants came prepared to read and analyze meaningful passages, sections that held significance for them - page numbers at the ready! 
  2. They could quickly encapsulate the key ideas of their passages - and the book, too. 
  3. All three brought questions about the text - not factual, text-based questions one could find the answer on a particular page or paragraph. Their questions had to do with implications of the author’s ideas, the significance and relevance of the text. 
  4. All three linked their reading of the text to other important topics, their own interests, and their own lives. They all spoke about how Coates’ work was particular resonant now in the era of Black Lives Matter. And O’Rourke was able to find a connection between Coates' work and her own study of mourning she did for her recent book. 
  5. And as they discussed each others’ comments, participant were able to point to a particular section of the book that corroborated his or her point. 
None of these noticings are brand new discoveries. I already ask students to make these moves. But now I have a means to demonstrate what those moves look like in action. 

There’s plenty of ways to strengthen how I create conditions for meaningful talk. I can do a better job of providing pre-reading guidelines and “bread crumbs” for students to follow as they prepare for class. And I can do a better job of providing reflection questions for them to ponder prior to a discussion. And now, when I hear podcasts that demonstrate what "seminar talk" sounds like, I can share excerpts with students so they can envision themselves in a seminar classroom and hear the skills they need to develop to join in academically rigorous discussions. 

*Shout out to Krystin and Najma, two students from one of my classes, for their generous and first-rate help with revising this blog post.