More voices: reflecting on harkness discusison

IMG_0069Now that my grades are turned in, my classroom has been cleaned, and my office packed, I can finally reflect upon the school year that has ended. At some point this year, it was enough to teach each day, come home each night, feed my family, and prepare to do it all again the next day.  It was a year filled with not enough time — strange since all the others have been the same 8765.81 hours.  This one seemed short a few hundred.

When I was a fledgling teacher, my mentors noted often that I was a “reflective” teacher — I think they meant it as a compliment.  They thought I paid attention to what worked and what didn’t, to how each lesson did or dd not fulfill my goals, or reach more of my students.  I still do that, but it seems more in concert with the planning that happens with my colleagues, and with the impromptu discussions that occur with my husband — also a teacher. I don’t necessarily feel that I am reflective about my lessons in the same way as those years ago when years seemed to have enough hours.

This year, however, despite the less than programmatic approach, my students seemed to be willing to go with the flow.  In our discussion model, students are encouraged to begin to monitor their own engagement with each other and text, though the Philips Exeter Harkness discussion method.  They hone skills like making text references to support points or interpretations, using each others names, asking questions, and minimizing interruptions. One of my classes really struggled to manage the balance between boys and girls at the table.  It was the girls who dominated, who steered the discussion, and who had the most to say on any given day.  The boys, it seemed, at first made an effort, but then silently withdrew, allowing the girls to run the show.

One idea behind Harkness is that is is meant to allow students to have a meta view of their habits, and then to make conscious choices that will lead to deeper and richer discussion.  Another idea includes problem solving — finding ways to shift the issues that are preventing the deepest conversation.  The glaring problem of the boys lack of engagement drove us to plan all girls and all boys discussions with the other gender group as observers.

When the girls observed the boys, the gave pointed feedback about numbers of times each boy used another boy’s name, about text, and about insights.  The girls were generous but also demanded more, telling the boys that they needed them to be part of the table for all of them to grow more adept at the structure. When the boys observed the girls, they were practical — perhaps searching for clues that would help them once we returned to the mixed gender discussions.

The class practiced the single gender discussions several times, and then we moved back to the mixed group, to mostly positive results.  Boys were more equally engaged, and seemed to take seriously their responsibility to each other at the table.

Our table geography, no longer limited to boys or girls alone, was richer and more focused, energetic and insightful, when many voices were in the mix.

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