Monday, February 15, 2010

Opening the discussion

Greetings to you all! Hope you enjoyed Valentine's Day!

Elizabeth Meadows writes:

"Hello, Sophie,
I am interested in learning more from and with others in this on-line forum about leading interpretive discussions. In particular, I want to learn more about how to start one. Sometimes, I give my Basic Question. Other times, I ask the group if someone has a "burning" question, given that each student has brought two interpretive questions to the discussion. After several people share, I see if the group seems to be interested in a shared concern. It may be a question that someone asked or it may be a question that arises from several people sharing their questions. At other times, I ask students to share interpretive questions that they bring to the discussion with a partner. Then, the partners work to come up with a question that both want to try to resolve. Then, the pairs all share their questions. It is a challenge after they do this to decide on which question to pursue.
In general, I want to help the group identify a shared concern fairly quickly in order to use the time that we have left to work to try to resolve it together, using the text.
Thanks to anyone who has suggestions for me about this.

Thanks so much for your question, Elizabeth. Yes, it can be hard to know what to do to get the discussion started. I think your your idea about partners is sometimes a good strategy. But as you say, it can be hard to pick one question over another when six or seven pairs have suggested questions.

I have two thoughts--not solutions to your important question but possible approaches to reaching a resolution:

1) Question the speakers as they offer their questions so that you are sure you/they/others are clear about the point of doubt. Often they are not clear themselves. If you can ask them questions about what they have said, you can help them to clarify their queries and also, give others a chance to grasp what the speakers are trying to ask.

2) If you ask people to pair up and discuss their questions, then question them about what they mean when they report their shared questions to the group. Ask them about the technical terms in the question, similarities and differences between their question and others they have heard, and places in the text that suggest the question and/or resolution.

Hope these comments are helpful. Remember that your goal is to build the question--to help people clarify its meaning so that attempts to resolve it are relevant. That means the question must become clear and the others in the group must get interested in it.

Thanks so very much for your question. What do you think about the above comments?

Best wishes,


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Request for discussion support--Please respond

Greetings to you all!

I received the following e-mail from an alum, Eva Opalka, who teaches sixth grade. She writes:

Dear Dr. Haroutunian-Gordon,

I hope you are doing well. I have not had a chance to attend your meetings in a while, but I always read the emails to see what you guys are up to. I am also looking for some sort of an on-line discussion forum - however, not for myself, but for my 6th grade students.

The children are all divided into small reading groups and run their own discussion circles (once a week). Sometimes my former 8th graders come down and lead, but usually, the students write their own questions and manage themselves - this is a fairly functional system, but monitoring quality of discussion is difficult.

I would LOVE to set up some kind of a system where students could communicate on-line with one another is some sort of a supervised way - during and/or after school. That way, students from different reading sections could be in the same book club. Right now, that's obviously not possible and therefore quite limiting. If we had an on-line system, we could also find schools in other countries and hold international book clubs. That sounds far-fetched, but hey, one can always dream.....maybe there is a grant out there somewhere for this sort of thing....

If you guys find something we could use, or if you have any ideas for how I could pursue these possibilities, please let me know!

Also, in the past, with you assistance, I have used NU students to lead discussion. If you have any students in your classes who would like to help out once a week for an hour (on Thursdays or Fridays), please give them my contact info. My group this year is a bit challenging, so experience working with special needs, ADHD, autistic kids would be a plus. We are reading a variety of texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, Watership Down, well as some contemporary classics and easier, below grade-level texts.

I could use a few strong discussion leaders - maybe a few from your interpretive discussion class?

Take care,

Eva Opalka
6th Grade Teacher
Nichols Middle School
Evanston, IL 60201

Kate and Brad in our office have had an idea for this class, and I will let them post it. Meanwhile, others should respond as well. Would you like similar support? Ideas about how to give and get it? I look forward to hearing from you! So far, one current student has volunteered to assist Eva with discussion in her classroom. Would you like to have similar assistance?


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Discussion of Discussion On-line!

Greetings to you all--Hope you are enjoying this welcome "snow day."

Yesterday, we met to discuss how to make on-line discussion about discussion easy and interesting for people. My belief is that many of you are leading interpretive discussions in your classrooms or that you want to do so and that on-line support from others may be helpful. I know that I could never teach my classes without sustained dialogue about the texts we use, the questions we have about their meaning, the experiences we have leading discussion, and the responses that people have to the discussion opportunities that we offer. That is why I asked Brad to set up the blog and the wiki--so that we could talk about these things. I even imagined you finding one another on the wiki and working together to prepare clusters of questions! Maybe even going to each others' schools to co-lead (not so easy but could work with planning). . .

However, it appears that the wiki is a bit complicated to use. Therefore, we are in search of a more user-friendly, convenient on-line format, like some kind of a listserv.

We need your help! Please tell us: 1) Your ideas about suitable on-line formats; 2) What you would like to do with others--share/build clusters, discuss leading experiences, texts, find suitable texts for discussion in the various subject areas/ grade level domains (We could create a data base of texts and clusters!), find co-leaders, etc. If you tell us what you would like the site to do for you, it will help us to design it.

We look forward to hearing from you! Your insights will be most helpful.

Best wishes,


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009--Adventures in School

Today, I will co-lead a discussion with one of our alums on Robert McCloskey's "Make Way for Ducklings." The students will be 3rd-4th grade, and it may be a large group. My co-leader (Let's call him Darwin) and I prepared a cluster of questions for the discussion--three rounds of revision. That process is such a pleasure that whatever happens in the discussion,I have already gained an enormous amount. I will ask Darwin's permission to post the cluster and if he gives it to me, I will post it here tomorrow with comments on the discussion.

More anon.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blog and Wiki are launched!

Greetings! Yesterday, we officially launched the blog for shg, Art of Turning the Soul, as well as the wiki. Several of us met for a tutoring session, led by Brad, and today I send my first message!

There is only one way to begin and that is by saying thank you to Brad Wadle for all his help in setting up the web site, the blog and wiki as well. He has been wonderful support in many ways over the book's long gestation period. Now, he has enabled entry into the virtual dimension. He has been ably assisted my Kate Biddle, but to Brad must go much of the credit! Many, many thanks!

I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions as we commune in this new space.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Schools Should Do What Democracy Needs: Teach People to Listen

On September 8, 2009, President Barack Obama told the school children of America: "What you are learning in school will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges of the future." What do our children need to learn in school so that such challenges can be met?

Schools must teach students to read and write and do mathematics. Schools must also engage them in the arts and in physical activity. But to what end? Our educational institutions have been charged with a sacred trust: to safeguard our democracy by teaching people to both think for themselves and work with others collaboratively. And in order to do either, people have to learn how to listen.

Far from simply following orders and obeying what others direct us to do, listening involves paying attention so as to understand what others intend to say, even if we disagree with them. Attentive listening requires asking what the others mean and making sure we have heard the answer correctly, regardless of our own preferences.

How can schools teach such listening? Research shows that classroom discussion which is organized around interpreting the meaning of texts teaches students how to think and listen to others' views, even those that conflict with their own. In an interpretive discussion, students and teachers work together to form questions about the meaning of books, non-fiction articles, numerical and other data, paintings, music, etc., and pursue resolution of the questions by searching the text for evidence. As students listen to the texts and other people speak, they come to understand the views and values of others as well as their own. In cultivating their listening skills, discussion participants develop empathy for the other, and empathy is as critical to the future of our nation and world as is the mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. Teaching students how to listen fosters their intellectual, social and emotional development; it leads to the development of character and citizenship. It is what schools should do.