As English teachers, we've all been there: We ask a roomful of students what we think is a provocative, thought-provoking question, but instead of stimulating discussion, we are greeted with blank stares and deafening silence. We patiently wait, giving students what we think is adequate time to process, as dry tumbleweeds metaphorically roll through the classroom. We finally resort to a desperate cold-call, asking one of our stronger students to bail us out: "So, Jamie, what do you think?"
Like all teaching methods, leading an effective, engaging classroom discussion is part science and part art. When we plan our courses at Literary Focus, we begin by choosing an AP Literary Argument (Question 3) prompt from a previous AP Exam to serve as the thematic focus for the unit and the subject of the final essay. For example, when teaching Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, we choose the prompt from the 2010 AP Literature Exam (Form B), which asks students to consider the importance of "home" in a literary work:
Even though we won't write this essay until the end of the book, we present the prompt at the beginning to give students ample time to consider the significance of Esperanza's feelings about her home on Mango Street and how her evolving attitude "illuminates the larger meaning of the work." We present the prompt for the final essay at the beginning of the unit not just to prepare students for the final essay, but also to prepare them for discussing the significance of home during the four-week course. Oftentimes, students are reticent to speak in class because they are unclear in their own minds about how they might answer a certain question, especially if the question is particularly challenging or ambiguous. Knowing that we will investigate the importance of "home" throughout the novel, students can annotate the text with this subject in mind and prepare their thoughts for when we discuss this aspect of the novel in class.
In addition to presenting the final essay prompt first, we also introduce three Essential Questions before reading any novel or play. Again, we will not attempt to answer these questions when we first present them to students; instead, we want them to simply begin the process of thinking about them, knowing that we will revisit them over the course of the novel, leading up to our culminating Socratic Seminar on the final day of the course.
When we read Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, we want students to consider the circumstances of the novel's protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, who struggles to find an identity as a second-generation Bengali immigrant to the United States. In order to get students to begin thinking about the deeper, more philosophical issues raised in the novel, we offer the following Essential Questions for students to contemplate as they read:
What does it mean to be an "American"?
How do our names help shape our identities?
Should we care about our cultural heritage?
As we read and discuss the novel in class, we constantly refer to these questions, but we let students' thoughts marinate until the concluding Socratic Seminar, when students know they will be able to discuss them in depth. In this way, we give students time to formulate their thoughts and opinions in preparation for that final discussion, which is when we go through each of the Essential Questions as students compare and contrast Gogol's experience in Lahiri's novel with their own experiences in the real world.
To begin the process of thinking about these issues, we give students a journal assignment after introducing the Essential Questions that asks them to consider a thought-provoking quotation, such as the one we chose for Lahiri's novel by the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): "Self-knowledge is not knowledge but a story that one tells about oneself."
Before we ask students to verbalize their thoughts on de Beauvoir's quotation, we have them write a 150-word journal entry for homework that they will subsequently post on the class discussion board on our website. We want students to have the freedom to respond to the quotation in any way they would like, but to help them organize their thoughts, we provide the following questions to guide their response:
By having students write their journal entries for homework, we once again give them time to process their thoughts before they have to verbalize them. Once they have posted their journals on the discussion board, they are then assigned to read their classmates' entries and respond to two of them in no more than 150 words. Since the courses at Literary Focus are for enrichment only, we do not grade students on the quality of their ideas during the Journal Discussion, but in a traditional classroom setting, we would assess students on their journal and responses, similar to the way we would assess an essay. (To read more about our grading system, please see our August 2022 newsletter: "Using Grades to Reflect Values")
Before students write their journals or respond to their classmates' entries, we always provide a model for what a high-level journal and responses would look like so students understand how they will be evaluated and what would constitute a top score. For instance, the following model is a student journal and responses for a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on the nature of "insanity" that we consider before reading William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying:
Many teachers began using online discussion boards during the pandemic when schools transitioned to remote learning. What many of us discovered—myself included—was that there were a number of students who thrived in online discussion boards whereas they remained relatively silent during live class discussions. Oftentimes these students seemed to be introverts who probably felt more comfortable expressing their ideas in written rather than verbal form. The extroverts who normally dominate in-person discussions often discourage, albeit unintentionally, the participation of quieter classmates, especially when those in-person discussions, like our Socratic Seminars, are assessed. As a result, the insights of these students are seldom heard.
The online discussion board, however, gives those introverted students a forum to express their ideas more freely, which then allows other students to read and appreciate their thoughts. The hope, of course, is that the positive affirmation that these students receive in the form of peer and teacher evaluations on the discussion board will give them the confidence to share their ideas verbally during the Socratic Seminar at the end of the unit. By giving students various means and opportunities for expressing their thoughts, we create a classroom environment where more thoughts and ideas are expressed, which hopefully leads to enhanced learning outcomes for all involved.
Another way we give students sufficient time to process their thoughts and an opportunity to share their ideas in a setting that is less intimidating than a whole-class discussion is through the use of study guide questions and small group discussions. Before we begin any novel or play, we first analyze a poem that is related thematically to the AP Literary Argument prompt that we have chosen for that book. For example, before reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, we analyze William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" (1919), which Achebe alludes to in his title. We format the poem as if it were an AP Poetry Analysis prompt (Question 1) on the AP Literature Exam:
Before we read Yeats' poem, we first analyze the prompt to determine what it is asking us to do. This particular prompt, which we created, asks students to consider the "complex feelings" that the speaker has "towards life in the war-torn modern world" after World War I. Like the College Board, we try to structure our AP-style prompts to encourage students to consider multiple perspectives and shifts in tone within a given poem or literary passage.
Instead of immediately analyzing the poem as a whole class, we have students first attempt to answer five study guide questions on the back of the prompt for homework. We emphasize with students that their answers and interpretations will only be used as a starting point for our discussion and that the assignment will only be graded for completion. In other words, it is a low-stakes, effort-based assignment:
When students come to the next class with their completed study guides, we have them turn their desks in 3DEK or 4DEK formation to discuss their answers in small groups. (To read more about how we organize desks in our classroom, please see the June 2022 newsletter: "Assigning Seats to Build Community.") It is only after students have shared their preliminary thoughts in a small-group setting that we ask them to share their ideas in front of the whole class.
Once students turn their desks back to whole-class format, we first ask for volunteers to share their thoughts, using the study guide to organize the discussion. We always mix in some cold-calls during any class discussion to keep students on their toes and to ensure that students understand that everyone is expected to participate. By using different scaffolding techniques to prepare students for every discussion, we not only give them time to organize their thoughts, but we also put them in non-threatening settings to share their ideas before they face the pressure of a whole-class discussion.
While the science of planning for classroom discussions is undoubtedly important, it is also essential for teachers to work on the "art" of leading effective, engaging discussions. Perhaps the most important skill that teachers can develop is the ability to listen carefully to student responses with the goal of being able to ask appropriate follow-up questions. When responding to student ideas, whether in verbal or written form, we follow the Socratic Method by asking only clarifying and probing questions. (To see how we use the Socratic Method when providing written comments on student essays, please see the July 2022 newsletter: "Managing the Paper Load") For instance, when discussing Yeats' poem, an exchange could look something like the following:
Teacher: Who does Yeats imply is responsible for the falcon not being able to hear the falconer in the second line?
1st Student: I think Yeats implies that the falconer is responsible because the falconer is supposed to train the falcon to obey the commands of the falconer.
Teacher: So if the falcon disobeys, it is the falconer's fault for not training it properly?
1st Student: Yes.
Teacher: Is that the same with parents and children? Should we blame parents if their children disobey them? Should we blame teachers if students don't do their homework?
1st Student: If the teacher assigns too much homework, yes!
Teacher: Isn't there an element of free will involved, too? Can we really control another being, and should we try to?
2nd Student: I think the falcon is just being a falcon.
Teacher: What do you mean?
2nd student: The falcon is a wild animal and doesn't want to be trained by nature. It just wants to be free and not controlled by a human being.
Teacher: So is the falconer to blame for trying to control the falcon in the first place?
2nd student: Yeah, I think so. The falcon is just rebelling against something unnatural.
Teacher: So how does that relate to Yeats' poem? Who do you think he sees as the falcon and who is the falconer? Who is responsible for the "anarchy" that has been "loosed upon the world"?
After asking the first question, which is taken directly from the study guide, and getting the first student response, the teacher asks a "probing" question to get the student to compare the relationship between the falcon and the falconer with a parent and child—and, by extension, with teachers and students. Notice that the teacher does not offer an opinion, but just builds off the student's initial response to consider an alternative way of thinking about the metaphor and its significance. When the second student says that the falcon is "just being a falcon," the teacher asks a "clarifying" question to make the student explain what that he or she means. After the student clarifies, the teacher tries to connect back to the poem by making students consider the point that Yeats seems to be making through his metaphor and its relationship to the "anarchy" that has been "loosed upon the world."
Just as we ask students to "actively" read a text to determine an author's intent, we also need to "actively" listen to our students—whether in written or verbal form—to push them to think more critically about the text and the validity of their claims. Fostering effective, engaging classroom discussions is rigorous intellectual work and requires a sustained effort by the teacher. We must remember that literature is open to interpretation and that any new insight—no matter how confounding or off-base it may seem—could lead to a greater understanding of the work. Students often produce unconventional interpretations that can keep us on our interpretive toes and help us look at the work in a fresh way.
As the great French literary critic Roland Barthes once stated, "Literature is the question minus the answer." When teachers embrace that mindset, they show students that we can all learn—students and teachers alike—when ideas are allowed to flow freely as we attempt to discover the deeper meanings of a text and its impact on the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us.