Friday, November 16, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser

I’m not sure at what point today I slipped down the rabbit hole, but by half-way through third period, I definitely recognized the place. 

You must understand that I do not consider myself to be a teacher whose challenges lie in the area of classroom discipline. But this is a group whose energy I have difficulty channeling in academic directions. (Today they were still talking about PE when I was trying to start class--even though I had a fascinating video interview with Elie Wiesel, whose Holocaust memoir Night we had just finished reading, prepared to start up on the screen.) 

You must also understand that all my reading and experience until today leads me to believe that small group discussions are better than whole group discussions. There is higher engagement and more individual processing time. Except that this class perfunctorily finishes  the required motions so they can talk about lunch. 

As an end-of-the-book change of pace, today I had students pull their 19 desks into a circle and turned the class over to them: Discuss today’s final assignment or the book as a whole. I opened my laptop to take notes.

They immediately jumped in: “Who’s going to facilitate?” One student stepped up, “Who has a question?” Immediately another responded, “What kept Eliezer going after his dad died?” Several students chimed in with answers. And they were off and running. 

A couple of times the discussion got off on a tangent--but it didn’t take long for a chorus of voices to recall the group to the book. Whether the questions stayed close to the reading--“When Eliezer was in the infirmary, why didn’t he and his father stay in the camp?”--or became personally challenging--“Would you be able to care for someone like Eliezer did for his dad?”--students were genuinely seeking and offering feedback.

One student responded to the notion that somethings it is better to forget: “I have an objection--you have to remember the past in order to live future.”       

They realized that we cannot predict how we will respond: “The prisoners were tested to the extreme and never knew when they would give up their most important values--like Eliezer’s feeling to get rid of father. Things that seemed of such great worth, the next day become trash.”

And they recognized that the line between good and evil does not run between people, but within the heart of every individual. Witness this conversation:
     “Each one of us is capable of doing something horrible to another person. What can we do to keep from falling into that? It’s so easy to become inhumane.” 
     “It happened again in Rwanda 1994--we think nobody is capable, but in reality, anybody could.”

At one point someone said, “Let’s hear from the people who haven’t said anything yet.”

I promise: I posted no questions for response, I laid no ground rules for the discussion (except the active listening behaviors I’ve been despairing of them practicing in their small groups), and I gave no grades. I did prime the pump by giving out 1/4-sheets of paper and asking them to jot down 2-3 questions or observations. I said, “If you love talking in groups, just jot notes for yourself to remember what you want to say. If you’d rather die than talk, write it out more thoroughly so I can read it.”

So what was the difference today? It wasn’t just being self-directed--the small group discussions have just as much self-direction. It felt like these students were more willing to take responsibility for their own and others’ learning in a bigger group than in a smaller group. As if among the 18 other students out there, they were surer of getting back-up than from the three others in their small group. I must confess, I’m mystified.

I don’t know quiet when or where we slipped into that rabbit hole, but I’m not done searching for the answer: We’re going back again this year, as frequently as we can.

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