Spend a few minutes at my middle school and you’ll quickly notice students talking over everyone–teachers and each other. Our school has proclaimed to be dedicated to social justice, and I can’t help but wonder how this culture of talking over one another is effective to empower students and help them develop strong voices. My hypothesis is that it is not effective, so what would be?
An obvious move is to have more discussion and debate in our classrooms, to practice talking to one another in a healthy and productive way. But for Baltimore City students who’ve become accustomed to fill in the blank worksheets and questions with a single right answer, jumping straight into a Socratic Seminar is a disaster waiting to happen. There needs to be a bridge between where they are and the ideal space where their voices are valued by everyone.
Towards that end, I started a Monday morning tradition where students sit in a circle and share one high and one low from their weekend, with mixed results. The heart of a recent lesson plan I used involved an activity where students got into pairs with one person acting as the speaker and the other as the listener. For one minute they had to speak continuously about something they were passionate about (I modeled by waxing poetic about the Baltimore Ravens), and the other person had to support them by listening intently. Switch roles and repeat. Then, do the same activity except now the listener is to be intentionally disengaged or even downright rude, texting on their cell phone, not making eye contact, etc. What you find is that communicating even when only one person is speaking is a highly social process, when the partner’s engaged your words are a co-creation, when your partner’s disengaged it’s nearly impossible to even continue talking about that which you are most passionate about.
The idea was to conduct this activity and then reconvene for a reflective conversation on the experience. Unfortunately reality did not match with my vision of what would happen. The all-girls classes talked over one another during the weekend high-lows, and transitioning straight to another talk and listen activity proved difficult. Probably only 75% actually did the activity, and by the time they finished I was unsuccessful at bringing everyone back together to reflect. At this point I began to question whether it was even possible to teach the way I wanted in this particular school culture and environment. Feeling frustrated and with class time running out I simply asked them to pull out a piece of paper and write one time in class where they felt like their voice was empowered and another time where it wasn’t, or, a time where they empowered or disempowered someone else’s voice.
It seemed that more people were in tune with the lesson than I first suspected in the moment. The girls wrote some very moving words, one of whom talked about NEVER feeling like she could express herself in school because none of the girls ever listen, so instead she chooses to be silent. Another talked about how she only felt comfortable expressing herself in one teacher’s room because they could talk about anything and they knew people would keep it private.
The next Monday I began by reading some of their responses to the class, all eyes were on me once I said that I would share back their classmates’ words. As I spoke there were murmurs of “that’s true” and “uh huh.” Then I told the girls that WE DECIDE whether this is a safe space or not, WE ARE THE CREATORS of it, and I simply asked, what do we want this space to look like and what will you do to help create it? It was a beautiful moment, they had a lot to say, and before we started our weekend high-lows I reminded the girls of their own words. The following conversation was the most empowering one I’d seen at our school to date, not because their weekends were that profound, but because every time a girl spoke her voice was bolstered by the intentional listening of every other student.
I don’t expect class to be a problem-less dream world from this point forward, but I do feel like we’ve begun to walk along the bridge towards a place of empowerment and productive self-expression.