“So what defines good or bad?” one boy asks. “Motives or actions? Everyone’s saying ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but I don’t understand what you really mean. Are they good because of their actions or because of their motives?”
“Motives,” says a kid across the room. There are no raised hands; he just jumps in. “It all comes down to your motives. I can donate all my money to a charity but if I say I want some attention, some fame, it undermines my good intention. Your motives define whether you’re a good person.”
“I think that’s where the science experiment failed,” says another boy, indicating a science study the class has just read called “Scientists Probe Human Nature and Find We Are Basically Good.” They are reading it today while they discuss Candide, the text they’ve been studying for this unit. “They’re reasoning that it’s a natural thing to do but they don’t really prove what’s motivating the actions.”
“But you never really know what a person’s intention is, you never truly know their motive,” objects a girl in the corner. “I would base it on their actions.”
I’m in Catherine Stine’s class at Animo Leadership in Lennox and we’re in the first ten minutes of one of the most abstract, intelligently articulated arguments I’ve ever heard in a class discussion. In a class of 26 students, every person is involved and contributes at least once. Everyone listens intently.
There is no discussion leader. Catherine sits at a desk in the back.
I am not making this up.
Back when I was teaching, on the rubric used to evaluate us (yes, the one that drove me so completely insane) there were four levels. Level one was chaos; no one was in charge. Level two was control. Level three was guided learning. Level four was the students teaching themselves. We used to joke somewhat bitterly that level four actually looked exactly like level one: the teacher did nothing. Here, though, I’m actually witnessing it: the holy grail of effective teaching, a class in which students have a spirited, focused, abstract analytical discussion completely independently.
What’s especially remarkable is that this discussion is taking place in a community where 94% of the students are from families who classify as socioeconomically disadvantaged. 18% of the students are English Language Learners. For the most part, their parents have not attended college; many did not finish high school. Statistically, children growing up in poverty have heard 30 percent less words by age two than more affluent children and by age 3 have heard 3 million less words than their more affluent peers. They have attended overcrowded, poorly funded elementary schools; here in Lennox, they are likely to have attended a gang-ridden, chaotic local middle school where learning was unlikely.
What this means, as teachers in low-income communities will tell you, is that no matter how inherently bright students are, even the most brilliant students don’t come in able to conduct an analytical discussion. First of all, vocabulary is a necessary element of any abstract discussion; the words “motive” and “intent” in the above discussion, for example, must be understood for students to participate. Secondly, logical reasoning is a complex learned skill, involving the staking of a claim and the support of that claim with carefully chosen and analyzed bits of hard evidence, then providing counter-arguments to refute those who might disagree.
Students who grow up in affluent families with highly educated parents, because they’ve heard so many more words, tend to have significantly larger vocabularies. They also tend to have been exposed from a very young age to logical arguments, both in conversation with parents and by reading whatever is in their homes. Students in poverty, by contrast, often have neither of those experiences.
In other words, an impassioned class discussion like the one I heard the other day in Jennifer Macon’s class involves for the most part students with highly educated parents who already know how to argue and to participate appropriately an academic discussion. While Jennifer had to spend some time teaching her students how to listen respectfully, she did not have to spend time explaining how to have a logical argument in the first place; her time can be spent on curriculum content.
Catherine, on the other hand, in addition to teaching Candide and bringing in a companion text every day, has an entire second curriculum taking place at the same time that involves teaching every single element of analytical thinking, reading and speaking. She has taught and posted Discussion Norms: “One person speaks at a time; actively listen at all times; make sure all voices are heard; no discussion domination; respect each other’s opinions; use sentence starters to keep the conversation flowing and back it up!” On the wall, there are also “sentence starters” such as “I’d like to agree with what _______ said” and “I’d like to offer a different view from what _____ said.”
Finally, she has “scaffolded,” or supported, the entire discussion with a form she hands out to every student. Each person is paired up with a partner and, in addition to participating, must watch that partner throughout the discussion. They make a check mark for every time their partner:
Speaks in the discussion
Tracks (looks at) the speaker
Refers to the text and backs up a point with evidence
Fails to track the speaker
Afterwards, they will comment on one thing their partner did well, one thing they could improve and what they think of their own performance.
It works. I know it sounds dauntingly mechanical, but as someone whose class discussions frequently deteriorated into chaos or rambling irrelevant personal anecdotes, trust me when I tell you that this kind of scaffolding is essential. And if you think it looks easy, let me break down what Catherine has had to do or will have to do in order to make this discussion work:
Try a Socratic (standard current discussion method in English classrooms these days) Decide that, though good, it’s not good enough.
Figure out exactly what were the elements of a successful discussion
Figure out exactly the best way to describe these to students so they can understand them
Discuss class norms
Tweak and revise several iterations of the system
Create the form with all the boxes and questions
Collect it and put it somewhere it won’t get lost
Grade them all
That’s for one round. And that doesn’t include time spent getting the students to trust and respect her and each other. And that’s before she’s even touched Candide or any of the other reading.
Again, see what I mean when I say that teachers in underserved communities should be paid more—a lot more? In addition to the regular curriculum, they’re meticulously teaching an invisible curriculum of academic conventions. So even though Catherine’s sitting in the back, she’s not “doing nothing.” She’s teaching a master class on the invisible curriculum. She just makes it look easy.