As the fall semester approaches, one thing everyone who resumes face-to-face teaching should consider is how they will discuss it. Class discussions have always been complicated, especially this fall. All of us—both students and teachers—will face the challenge of being in the same room with dozens of other people again and trying to communicate. With our current political climate, the possibility of changing the rules for wearing masks, and the need for teachers to create more just classrooms, things will become more complicated.
Therefore, as teachers, we need to be more cautious about classroom discussions-not only in terms of topic content, but also in terms of how we organize them.
Teachers often get into discussions. We assume that students understand the reasons and necessity behind these discussions. However, if students are not provided with clear settings, they will either make up their own reasons or give up. Due to increased anxiety about COVID and the changing cultural atmosphere in our classrooms, these problems will only intensify in the fall. We need strategies to build, position, and guide discussions.
In order to better organize my discussion, I have developed two specific strategies. I found that when they are used together, they increase participation, reduce confusion, and generally improve the quality of classroom conversations. I also found that by developing these two strategies, my students produced a more powerful course after discussion. I have named the strategies positioning and evaluation and will describe them one by one, hoping to help other teachers cope with the challenges of face-to-face teaching this fall.
This includes introducing the discussion to students, then stopping to explain to them how the themes, ideas, and concerns will build, challenge, or change current coursework and/or content. Starting a discussion can be simple, just pay attention to how the discussion of the new reading will help the student connect the reading with the most recent lecture. It can also be more complex—for example, detailed discussions of several reading materials provide new perspectives on larger course topics.
For example, in my first year of composition course, I asked my students to write a personal account of their failure in writing. At the beginning of the narrative work, I asked the students to discuss the texts they had recently read that they thought failed. Then, for the narrative, students can write anything, from misunderstood text messages to their failed essays, to cover letters for jobs they didn’t get.
When discussing examples of writing failures, students share their texts and their views on the reasons for the failure of the texts. However, before we start, I will position the discussion by explaining to students that this will help them continue to think about the reasons and reasons for writing failure, and how readers can play a role in determining the failure of an essay. I also explained that the discussion should help them improve their skills in establishing a connection between the text they read and their writing and writing skills. This is the result of the course learning.
Arranging discussions allows students to connect what they and others are saying to their current coursework, but it does not make the discussion more engaging, respectful, and/or productive. In order to increase the participation and influence of the discussion, teachers must also find a way to make the discussion produce a certain result. It must have a clear value for the student and their work and/or development in the course.
The assessment discussion needs to create a result that students will use in their coursework-when doing homework, writing essays, or preparing for an exam. The result can be as simple as a list of key terms that may be used in the upcoming exam. Or it may be as complicated as asking students to respond to an idea in a discussion in an upcoming paper. Emphasis on discussion does require some knowledge output of the course to be given to the students themselves, and to provide them with some agency rights regarding the content of their responses and/or learning. Doing so will make the discussion more important to the student, both in terms of the actual behavior of the discussion and the impact of the discussion on the course.
Going back to my previous freshman composition course example, I asked the students to list the reasons for writing failure in the discussion about writing failure. When students share their ideas, I interact with them to sort out various aspects of the failed text, which may be applicable to other failed texts-for example, the text does not appeal to the audience or is constructed in a way that confuses the author’s argument. I listed all of these on the blackboard. Then, once the discussion was over, I asked the students to choose from the brainstorming list the two ways they thought they had failed as a writer. Then they used these two things to start brainstorming and write down potential moments in their failed personal writing narratives.
When generating lists and brainstorming their papers based on the lists, students will experience the tangible value of discussions. Discussion became an invention form of their thesis. It produced something, which they used as part of an ongoing course of personal narrative.
I explained this before discussing it. I noticed that the discussion will end with a brainstorming list, and they will use these ideas to help them develop their own narrative. Paying attention to the discussion increases student participation and attention: as part of the discussion, they produce something that they and their classmates will obviously apply to their work.
In short, teachers need to clearly explain to students how and why they conduct class discussions. When teachers get into discussions without creating a context or value for them, they will force students to develop their own context and values—usually those that are different from what the teacher wants.
Therefore, we need to develop a context and value for each discussion we hold, and explain both to students clearly before each discussion. This will enable students to better participate in the dialogue and learn from it. It can also help us as teachers better deal with the coming fall teaching challenges.