In my second year of graduate teaching, I taught a remedial writing version of W131, IU’s freshman writing course, that is intended to help struggling and under-prepared writers develop the skills for writing at the college level. While most of our time was spent covering the basics of the genre—thesis statements, paragraphing, working with sources—a significant chunk of the syllabus was devoted to reading and discussing non-fiction essays. My spring semester class struggled with in-class discussion. Their reading comprehension was good enough, but they weren’t able to talk about the essays. Many of the students in my 15 person class wouldn’t speak at all. Even calling our classroom talk “discussion” is a stretch. Instead, we evolved into scripted question and answer sessions that felt more like call and response than conversation.
Part of the problem was that my students were unused to this sort of liberal arts education. Most of them simply hadn’t been called on to engage with a text in this way before. High school tested them on content, not application. But another part of the problem was with me; as a relatively new teacher, I responded to their silences by writing ever more detailed lesson plans. In a Socratic spirit, I never lectured, but the series of leading questions I ended up writing might as well have been a lecture. They certainly contributed to the call-and-response style discussion that left me and my students feeling disinterested and disengaged.
While teaching this class, I happened to also be in a graduate seminar with Johnathan Elmer, a gifted teacher in IU’s English Department. One day, Johnathan announced that he was going to do an experiment. There were two rules to this experiment: everyone, including Johnathan, had to speak at least once. People could speak in any order, but after speaking, you couldn’t speak again until everyone else had said something.
Though I wasn’t sure that his graduate seminar strategy would work in my remedial writing class, I was sure that whatever happened would be better than another tooth-pulling Q&A discussion. So when the next essay day came around, I wrote down three questions that I hoped we would hit, I explained the two rules to my class, made sure they understood and were willing to play along, and then I sat down and shut my mouth.
The first thing anyone said was, “I don’t think this is going to go as well as you think it’s going to go.”
Not an auspicious start, but what could I do? Rather than break my own rules, I shrugged my shoulders and gestured at the class to carry on. My back started to sweat, but I counted to ten and kept looking at them expectantly. “Just keep smiling,” I thought.
Eventually a student spoke up, then another. There were awkward silences, for sure, but we made it through everyone in under fifteen minutes. I wrote down everything they said on the chalkboard, and when we had gotten through everyone I asked some follow up questions that helped us synthesize their various questions and observations.
At this point, I’d like to say that every discussion we had afterwards was amazing. They weren’t. Sometimes they still felt forced. But this discussion experiment did mark a change in the class. My students were quicker to engage, they asked more questions, and they made more connections to things outside of the classroom. Most importantly, though, they started asking each other questions. I didn’t expect this outcome, but a nice development in our discussions was that they started addressing each other directly, asking their peers to clarify or expand their points. Removing my voice, temporarily, forced them to fill the void with their own input, and though they might not have mastered it, I think they started learning how to learn from discussion.