Structuring Classroom Discussions
If one were to visit the "traditional" history class, you might find the teacher at the front of the room pointing at the PowerPoint slides while students copied down whatever information was posted. (Side note: Why do we have students copy notes when it would be much easier to share them online or just print a copy?) This kind of classroom - influenced by industrialism and economic necessity - ends up being a dumping ground of information.
I'll admit that in the last few years I have begun to really questions some of the "traditional" tasks that I forced students to accomplish. The first time I taught AP United States history, I required my students to memorize all of the Presidents, their political parties, and years in office. It was a fun challenge and I enjoyed watching students write stories, make dances, or memorize what sounded like binary code to pass. It was a 100% or nothing quiz but they could take it as many times as they want. Finally, a couple students asked me if I could pass and I admitted: absolutely not. Then why give it? Do they really need to memorize all of that information? If I needed to remember when President Jackson was in office and who succeeded him, I would just look it up on Wikipedia.
There are so many questions that we have about history. Granted, I remember a lot of information because I teach the subject year after year, but there are times I am stumped. And each year I have to review those topics that I don't really like. Yes, there are historical topics I don't enjoy (sorry American Revolution & Civil War historians). So instead of focusing my attention on getting students to memorize, I started looking at flipped learning and really teaching about access to information. Rather than reading every word of the textbook, I recommend a shortened version in combination with support videos.
In class, we focus on activities. I love using discussion models, word sorts, map activities, sculpture, visualization methods, etc. It's in class where I can watch students struggle with content and learn how to mine the massive amounts of information to decide what is most important.
To teach about primary source documents, I developed a structured discussion protocol. I will be presenting it at a few conferences this year and hope that it might be helpful in any history class. My presentation and resources are linked here. This activity his pretty intensive, but it really challenges students to become the historians. They can focus on a text and dive into the author's or artist's world.
The structured academic discussion I will be presenting is just one model that I use in class. I find that using protocols requires students to synthesize a lot of information into a very focused and purposeful discussion. And in the last few years I have seen some (slight) improvement in writing. The link between speaking and writing is sometimes absent in classes. Teachers often skip from reading to writing and forget that there needs to be time given for students to talk about the content.
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