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by: Angela Maiers

Making Room for Courageous Conversations in the Classroom

Does any of this sound familiar?

  1. Teacher reads the book. 
  2. Teacher asks questions. 
  3. Students (usually the same one or two) answer the questions. 
  4. Lesson ends.

The dialogue (monologue?) here is safe; but the learning is at risk. Where is the courage? The courage to ask different questions, challenge the answers, defend alternate points of view?

I recently heard Colin Powell say, "Debate, argument, and disagreement is how we find out what [each other] really thinks [so we can] continue to move forward!"

Taking a stand for what one believes or thinks is one of most courageous actions our students can take, and they are “practiced” out of it. Students have become programmed to respond directly to the teacher, bypassing the comments, ideas, and interpretations of one another. 

When students become accustomed to asking each other for reasons and opinions, to listen carefully to one another, to build on another’s ideas, they demonstrate courage. Some call this "fight like you're right, listen like you're wrong."

In order to get students to respond in deeper, more courageous ways, they need to begin listening to one another and offer their comments directly to each other rather than always through the teacher. This requires vigilant shifts in classroom discussion dynamics where the focus goes from teacher-asks-question, to students-answers-moves-towards-learner-ideas.

To begin this shift toward courageous conversation, I use a strategy adapted from Frank Serafani’s work, entitled YOU SAY, I SAY, SO WHAT? 

This strategy has multiple goals: To get students to listen carefully, use what is offered as the foundation for their subsequent comments, and most importantly to take action on the knowledge gained as meaning is courageously negotiated in intelligent and respectful ways.

Good Morning Learners! Today we are going to practice what I call having a courageous conversation. We are used to having class discussions, and you are very good at paying attention and answering the questions I ask. The focus of today’s conversation is different. A courageous conversation involves three very important attributes we are going to work on together:

The first is listening to one another. As each learner speaks, we are going to be working on actively listening to what they are saying, why they are saying what they think, and what we are learning from their ideas.

The second practice in a courageous conversation is pausing. Before we offer our own thoughts and comments in response to one another, I want us to pause long enough to reflect on what our classmates have added to the conversations so that we can specifically refer to what they have contributed. Only then will we be allowed to add our own thinking.

Finally, as we negotiate meaning through listening and responding to one another, we together make a decision on what we are going to do with this knowledge. We commit to an action together.

To help us work through these three steps, let’s think about structuring our conversation in this way:

  • You say – one of our classmates shares their thoughts and ideas about our discussion topic.
  • I say – After pause and reflection we acknowledge what has been said while adding our own thoughts and opinions.
  • Now What? – Together we will decide what, if any action, should or could be taken because of what we learned.

This conversation tool can begin with a work of literature or be part of the daily curriculum. The important focus of the lesson is to get students to listen to one another and not just talk directly to the teacher all the time. The conversations may seem a bit inauthentic and mechanical at first; the flow will come with practice as students become more effective as a community of readers, writers, and communicators.