Classroom Discussion: The Anti-Teaching

Circle of desks

Standing at my podium, calmly taking notes on what my students were saying, jotting down thoughts about their progress, I started to wonder: Am I doing anything here?  My students were sharing great insights about an incredibly difficult poem, and I was feeling exultant at their reading skills. But still I wondered:  Is it weird that I’m not talking?  If a principal walks in right now, do I look lazy? I really think I’m pretty unnecessary at this moment.

Eight and a half years ago, I was desperate.  I stared at a huge list of curriculum objectives I was supposed to teach in order to prepare my students for the Advanced Placement exam in May. An even longer list of literature appeared as I started examining the syllabi of other AP Literature teachers. How was I ever going to re-read all of these novels, plays, and poems, align objectives with each text, and then develop activities, lessons, and assessments for all of this literature?

Not to mention the grading that would come afterward.

Out of sheer survival mode, I decided to incorporate classroom discussion. I reasoned that this course was a college- level literature class, I had a literature degree, and nearly every literature class I had ever taken ran totally on discussion. English majors know how to move those desks into circles.

All thoughts of reading quizzes fleeing my brain, I searched for the best methods to use. I experimented with Inside/Outside Circles and Socratic Seminars before finally adopting the Harkness method.

What began as a lifesaver has become the most powerful teaching method I have ever used.

Although I should probably call it the anti-teaching method.  Student–led classroom discussion is teaching by getting out of the way.

Thomas Carruthers said, “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.”  So if my presence is superfluous as I watch my students talk to each other about difficult texts, that’s okay. That’s my job.

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8 responses to “Classroom Discussion: The Anti-Teaching

  1. I loved the classroom discussions! They were the only times I remember forming my own conclusions about a text instead of just being told what was important. I wasn’t very good at the time, but those discussions definitely helped my confidence in college and beyond. Thank you!

    • That’s so good to hear, Katelyn! I’m really glad that they helped you–it’s always good to get feedback on a classroom practice, so that I know I’m not crazy!

  2. Hi! I saw a picture of a bookmark that you had made for your students with questions on it? Would you be willing to share the bookmark? Thanks – Jennifer

  3. I have started using your version of Harkness discussions in my class, and they are going great! My main question at this point is, do you use the same discussion format all or most class days, or only some? I am worried about it becoming too repetitive if we do the same thing every day, but I do see great benefit in using this approach regularly.

    • I use it for literature discussions. When we work with writing, I use small randomized groups. We do 2 or 3 literature discussions per week. The other days we are having minilessons, working on writing, blogging, learning background knowledge, etc. The content is always changing, but the discussion technique is not. I actually find that this is less stressful than always trying new activities. When I’m always changing to a new activity, I have to spend too much time just teaching procedural knowledge. If I simplify the procedures I use, I can focus more on the literature and the critical thinking. I’m glad you like it!

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