Students have shared that discussion time is scarier than taking a test. How do we create classrooms where students report that during discussions they feel confident to ask a question, feel that classmates are listening to them, and feel connected to classmates? Liza Garonzik, from Real Discussion, provides some immediate steps teachers can take.
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Steve: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:32 Creating belonging in class discussion. Joining our podcast today is Liza Garonzik, an experienced teacher and administrator with a passion for students learning the skills of discussion, skills that she believes they need for learning and for life. I reached out to Liza after reading an article that she published titled, “Three Steps to Co-create Belonging During Class Discussions.” Of course we’ll have that link to that article in the lead-in to this podcast for you. I’m excited that she agreed to join us. So welcome Liza.
Liza: 01:10 Well, thanks for having me, Steve. I’m thrilled to be here.
Steve: 01:13 Terrific. For starters, would you share a little bit about your, your teaching background and how you developed your interest in the topic of discussion?
Liza: 01:22 Absolutely. So I started teaching in a middle school humanities classroom where we were lucky enough – I was in a school that really valued student voice and believed in the power of student led learning, which was wonderful. And it meant that we used discussion all the time. That said, I think we largely thought about discussion as a tool for process content, rather than as a tool for developing students’ voices and creating relationships among the kids themselves. And what I realized was that as teachers, we kind of fell into the same patterns around student led discussion. Students would come into the class, they’d sit down, they’d be ready to have a conversation, then the same five extroverts would dominate, some introverts would try to elbow their way in, a class clown would kind of lob a one liner, somebody would chuck a cell phone under the desk, and then everybody would be relieved when the discussion was over.
Liza: 02:19 And as teachers, we wouldn’t really know how to grade it. And I just said, hey, wait a minute. What is going on here? First of all, it’s interesting to me that so many teachers feel quietly frustrated and honestly I think inadequate around their management of discussion as a pedagogical tool. And for students, how do we make this an authentic experience? And as you said, it was pretty clear to me, the kids sitting in the classroom today are gonna be citizens, they’re gonna be parents, they’re gonna be professionals. They need discussion skills, not just for success in their conversation about Romeo and Juliet, but they need discussion skills for real life. So I said alright, how can I make great discussion teachable? The answer to that is this little model I’ve come up with, there are four skills, I know we’ll get into that later.
Liza: 03:06 But I think conceptually, the place that ultimately I landed was, I grew up in the nineties so we had computer labs in school and we would go once a week to computer lab and we’d have this dedicated time where we learned how to type, for example. And we didn’t really know where typing was gonna fit in our lives, but it was clear it was very important. And the way I started thinking about student led discussion was today’s kids actually need conversation lab. They don’t need computer lab, they are computer labs. But they need that dedicated time during school to practice great conversational skills. So that’s kind of where the outlook came from and, and what I’m up to now.
Steve: 03:49 Well, I know from earlier discussion that you and I had that you interviewed a lot of students about their experiences with discussion, and I’m wondering what you found, what kind of insights you gained through those interviews?
Liza: 04:07 Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I thought who better to tell me about the experience of student led discussion than students themselves? And so I would say my friend, Mary Dahlgren, at Tools For Reading, talks about anec-data, and I would say that my research falls anec-data category. You know, I probably talked to, or surveyed about 1800 kids, grade 7-12, and the punchlines were one – and this was pre COVID. So this was research done in 2018/2019. Discussion is scarier for them than taking a test for the majority of students. And that was a big highlight. A second highlight when you actually dug down into why discussion was anxiety producing was, I think there were kind of eight options for what do you find most kind of scary about a discussion. And the first response was pretty predictable – can I get my voice in? The second was, is my comment gonna be good enough? But the third, which really surprised me, was how do I take notes so that I have a record of the conversation? And so, there were little insights like that, that that really surprised me and influenced how I designed Real, which is an approach to student led discussion.
Steve: 05:23 Could you talk a little bit more about the connection between discussion and belonging? I think that’s why the article that you
wrote jumped out at me at first.
Liza: 05:37 Yeah, absolutely. Discussion is fundamentally a deeply human experience. And so it is something that is at the heart of any classroom that you enter. Whose voice is heard, how many times, who’s listening, what does that look like, is something that we don’t often name in terms of classroom dynamics, but is absolutely present. And when I think about discussion as a tool for belonging, there’s a lot of research out there. That’s kind of adjacent to that. I think first about Joe Feldman’s work, he wrote “Grading For Equity” and he has a concept around demystifying success. So he talks about making clear upfront, what success looks like, so that then all students can achieve it. And discussion to me, wasn’t particularly clear what success looks like in a conversation, which is why we were in that ambiguous space where the extroverts and the introverts were trying to do things differently and it wasn’t working for anybody.
Liza: 06:32 And so stepping back and saying, “okay, how do we do mystify success so that all kids can achieve it,” I think is really step one in terms of creating belonging. The other thing about belonging in the classroom is that routines can be extremely powerful in creating it. And so often we don’t have explicit routines built around discussion. We have routines thanks to folks like John Hatty, thanks to folks like Project Zero at Harvard, there are lots of great thinking routines for other elements of the curriculum, but so often discussion still feels ambiguous. And I found that by making routines for discussion explicit, you’re able to help students predict how a discussion will unfold. And then they’re much more relaxed heading into it and they’re able to be more fully present. You can also create protocols for deeper listening and sharing during discussion.
Liza: 07:30 So for example, one thing that I find very powerful is, there’s a symbol and sign language, and I know you can’t see me right now, but it means eye to eye. And it’s almost like your head banging symbol. And I tell kids that that’s basically a visual “like” button. And when a student starts speaking up and sees their classmates all using this symbol saying, “hey, I agree with you,” immediately, that child’s posture changes. They feel affirmed and they keep going. And they’re more likely to talk again in the next discussion. So there are all of these kinda little routines that I think we can make and build in a classroom that ultimately validate each student’s voice and I think that that’s an important step in terms of creating belonging.
Steve: 08:19 As I was listening to you, I don’t think I’ve ever made that solid connection that just jumps out at me, listening to you, that if I’m part of a discussion as an adult in a group – if I’m part of a discussion sitting around the dinner table, I walk away with this sense of belonging to the people who are there. But I’ve already been at that table where – and I’m one of the extroverts who usually gets in pretty easy
Liza: 09:12 Yeah. I think the other thing – it’s interesting, your comment about basically you already feel at home at the dinner table, and I think that something that happens in class discussion, it’s funny because many schools, schools that have selective admissions, work so hard to choose the students who are in the class and to create diverse environments. And yet, too often, we forget about making sure that all of those students feel as if the dinner table’s theirs, as if the desks in the classroom belong to them. And little routines like this help build a culture around like, we’re so glad you’re here, we’re so glad you’re sitting here and here is how we engage each other at our school. And I love that, particularly in schools that have diverse student bodies that have high turnover among students. I think it’s really important.
Liza: 10:07 And certainly, I will just say, more anec-data supports this – that if students feel belonging in the classroom and especially in discussion based courses, they carry that with them throughout the entire school day. I mean, the relationship, for example, we see in our surveys around Real, between students who are using real discussion, they report being more likely to say hi to each other in the hallways. So they’re all kinds of socio-emotional, I’d say, benefits that relate directly to belonging and to creating school community when you’re intentional about scaffolding the conversation that’s happening within a classroom.
Steve: 10:48 Are there strategies and approaches for students to learn about discussion when a teacher breaks the class into groups of four or five and is looking for discussions within that group versus when the teacher’s looking for a whole class discussion?
Liza: 11:09 Absolutely. I mean, I think anything that can help kids feel confident and not awkward facilitating, goes a really long way. I think always giving students in small groups a bailout question so that when they get to the awkward silence, they have something to ask is a great one. I know in my classroom, it was always fair game for the final discussion question to be, “why are we reading this?”
Liza: 11:37 And so often, students would get there and that would be the best part of the conversation. I would say another, just simple, simple win – a few of them. So one would be to help build equity in terms of whose voices are being heard and when. In a purely student led capacity or student led context, like what you’re describing, you can have students hold up – they pass off to each other. So I speak and then I look around and I see who wants to speak next. And everybody who’s sitting in my little group will hold up a finger for every comment that they’ve already made. And what that does is it makes it so that if Liza just spoke and Steve wants to speak, but Steve is holding up four fingers, because he’s an extrovert and he’s already talked a bunch, but then we have Joe over there and Joe is holding up a fist, which means he hasn’t talked at all, it’s my job to make space for Joe’s voice rather than the other way around rather than Joe feeling like he has to jump in before Steve does.
Liza: 12:29 And little things like that, empower students to feel confident facilitating and to have a method to decide who talks when. And it is amazing to see – their number one in all the surveys we do, their number one emotion after using Real, which uses all these kinds of scaffolds is relief. And I think again, that speaks to the anxiety of discussion and the anxiety of being put in that group of four and being told to talk for 20 minutes. And the first, second and third thoughts are, how do we do that? So helping them figure out how you facilitate both in terms of who’s speaking when, but also what do we do if we run out of stuff to talk about, those are two pretty easy wins.
Steve: 13:22 Cool, cool. Well, Liza, I want you to take a couple moments to tell people about the the Real Discussion organization that you formed and how they might be able to tap into you and your resources for support.
Liza: 13:45 Yeah, absolutely. So as you gestured to at the beginning, Real Discussion is an organization that’s committed to teaching teachers how to teach students the discussion skills they need for success in school and in life. And that looks different depending on what kind of school we’re in, but certainly we offer professional development that’s aligned to various frameworks. So, in terms of IB, we really contextualize the real model we teach within approaches to learning. If you’re looking at and common core in the US, we focus specifically on how to teach speaking and listening standards within the context of curriculum you’re already using. And in independent schools, we help each teacher look kind of at their school mission statement and think about how our framework fits in with their particular school environment. So we offer PD that really empowers teachers to take our framework and make it work in their classroom.
Liza: 14:41 We also provide a lot of student materials because again, I mean, I’m just so student centered. So we have student portfolios that help kids document their engagement in a discussion over the full year. And we do also have this virtual professional – it’s almost like a virtual PLC of folks who are dedicated to teaching discussion skills in middle and high schools primarily, you know, kind of years 10-18, and we call it a nerd party. That’s kind of the joke. And it truly is. We have a study session every month where we come together and solve the problem someone’s having in their classroom and have all kinds of resources. So that’s what the organization does. And the easiest way to reach out is just check out our website, it’s realdiscussion.org or get in touch with me directly. We design programs for schools all the time and would love nothing more than to add some new voices to this discussion about discussion. It’s truly a privilege to be in a place where like we’re convening these conversations.
Steve: 15:48 Terrific. Speaking and listening is in everybody’s curriculum standards these days. So we’re beginning to to suggest that it’s a skillset students have to develop across the board. So we’ll be sure to put the link to your website in the lead-in to the podcast. So thank you so much for joining us.
Liza: 16:11 Well, thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 16:14 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me
your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.