Last year I was at The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN) conference. While there I had the opportunity to speak to a professor from Leiden University. In our conversation he told me about what skills he sees students lacking most as they enter university as freshmen. More than anything he said that students struggled with the art of academic conversation. He found that he had smart students who knew the facts, but could not build off of the ideas of others so as to deepen their own understanding through conversation.
Since my discussion with the professor I have thought how can I, as a high school teacher, prepare my students for the skills they will need at the next level, especially in terms of carrying on academic conversations. I have the use of structured conversations has been a tool for me to help students develop the skill of academically driven conversations. Structed conversations are the use of protocols, thinking routines, or guiding questions to take ambiguity out of what needs to be said and provides a framework for dialogue.
When I began teaching I imagined being part of free flowing, thought provoking, intellectual conversations with classes. These conversations of my dreams just emerged naturally and were driven by the pure love of the content and the passion for conversation. What I found is that at 7:35 in the morning, no matter how much students enjoy a class, conversation does not always flow. To address the crickets in the room I have used a variety of structures to facilitate conversation.
One of the structures that I have found to be most productive is Save the Last Word for Me. Save the Last Word for Me is a protocol that comes from the National School Reform Faculty. Each student selects a portion of the text significant to that student and one at a time shares his/her portion with his/her small group. Once the portion of the text is shared each group member is expected to respond to the selected portion for a set amount of time. After the group members have responded to a specific portion of text, the initial sharing student gets to have the last word — either building upon any ideas shared by their peers or just sharing why they selected this portion of the text.
By using structured conversations, versus freeflow, students are held accountable to be part of the conversation. Often times their accountability is only for a limited time, but still they know they are 100% expected to participate. These structures and accountability checks helps to create a even and level playing field. The structured conversation allows all students to have a voice and have their ideas heard as opposed to a conversation being dominated by whomever is most comfortable speaking in front of a group. This, in turn, leads to a deeper construction of understanding as a wide variety of voices are sharing ideas and building upon one another.
If you are interested in finding further structures to help facilitate academic classroom conversations, the National School Reform Faculty website has lots of free resources to help educators.