The Best Class Discussion I Ever Had

I didn’t speak for 30 minutes. And it was wonderful.

Last spring, I changed how my students would learn math. I was tired of pretending all students could follow full-class lessons. They needed their own pace. Students were organized in small groups. I gave them a list of things they needed to learn paired with online lessons. I recorded videos with markers and paper and posted links to others. I uploaded practice handouts and let students schedule their quiz dates on or before a deadline. It was common to see one group watching a video, another at the board working through problems, and two more combined as I explained a lesson in person.

The change was good for some and not for others. After a month, groups needed adjustment, I needed feedback, and everyone needed to reflect. I borrowed an idea from a HTH teacher. “Have a discussion and commit to stay silent.” I did. “You’ll be surprised what the students say.” I was.

At the end of one class, I gave a handout listing some specific topics I wanted to discuss. I asked them to write for the last few minutes and bring their thoughts the next day. We arranged the desks in a circle. I started by asking for a few moderators to keep the group on track. Their role was to ensure everyone contributed and to cover all topics. Two students took notes – one on the board, another in a Google Doc.

I sat outside the circle and buried my face in my Chromebook in an attempt to vanish. Much like the first ten minutes of a party, it took time for students to stop glancing around. Like most math teachers, I am not versed in Socratic seminars; I resisted the urge to jump in. I shook my head if addressed. Your usual talkers dominated the first bit of the discussion. But the moderators did their job and soon it was a debate on learning. One girl talked about how watching a video multiple times helped her learn. Another talked of her need for daily homework and more structure. They were honest. They remembered concerns others had raised. Students organized votes on policy. I’m glad they felt I’d honor their decisions.

After about a half hour, I felt compelled to address some of their concerns and commend them on their conversation. We went forward with many of their suggestions. In the era of pacing charts, a half day for discussion on how students learn is unheard of. But let them talk. Everyone learns.

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