The role of discussion in engagement

I had the pleasure of covering two Grade 9 Language and Literature classes in a row -with Romeo and Juliet for content! ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea.’ 🙂

In the first class, we watched the end of the Claire Danes version, and then I asked the students to individually or in groups summarize the story. They set to creating Google Docs and tip tap typing away, looking in print versions of the book and on the Internet for clues. Some students were engaged, but many had a flat energy about them. Most were writing in prose: paragraphs that lacked meaning and bore no connection to the complexity and tragedy of the human experiences they were describing.

In the second class, I came with big huge pieces of paper. I asked the students to hold up fingers on a hand to show to what extent they felt familiar with the plot of the play and I got a lot of ones and twos, which confirmed my suspicion. Writing a summary of the play was not helping them understand the plot of the play.

So I spoke for 15 minutes trying to inspire them to engage with the content, doing everything I could do to draw connections between our human existence and the play: our ridiculous dramas and the unchanging similar nature of our more base and emotional capitulations. I illustrated these by marching around in character recounting personal teenage experiences, covering my ears and mouthing silent screams to block out my uncomprehending father. I pretended to be a tough guy and strutted across the class biting my thumb at invisible tough guys I was passing, and then became one of the invisible tough guys and said, ‘do you bite your thumb at me!?’ I drew ideas from the crowd including a great comment by a student who said that the play was like a portrait of humanity, which drew me to talk about the difference between being trapped blindly inside of our experiences and stepping outside our experiences to view them out of character and without emotional attachment and degradation. To be able to get perspective so that we can see that we are always making choices, that our choices are infinite, and that we do not need to drown in our moments of despair.

I fought tirelessly to gather eye contact and recognition, to win laughter and self-recognition. To ignite motivation to read and engage with this text that so beautifully captures in an ornate frame a wide array of human folly and subordination.

Then I pulled out the big pieces of paper, which brings me to the point of this post. I had observed that when working on their own to create a summary of the play for personal use, they were walking a thin line of perception. They were not engaging in discussion, they were not processing the play. So I asked each table grouping (of which there were conveniently 5) to choose an act of the play to summarize. I asked them to use quotes and icons and words, connected by arrows and lines, to create a summary of the act that would communicate the humanly significant elements of the scenes of the act to an audience of peers.

There were varying amounts of labour dividing -students jumping in to be illustrators, one group instantly divided the scenes of their act among themselves and created their summaries silently. But in all groups there were discussions about events to include, the significance of said events, the best quotes to summarize them, and what icons could be used to capture the meaning Shakespeare was trying to portray. I was able to circulate and learn about what the students perceived as significant and got to be blown away by the depth of their perceptions.

At the end of the class when all but one large piece of paper had complete details of an act, I asked the students to hold up fingers on a hand to show to what extent the activity helped them understand the act. 3s, 4s, and 5s except for one 2. He said it was because he already understood the act he was working on.

This is an example of the relationship between Talk and Engagement and how they bring meaning to learning. As Professor Debra Myhill said: “You can’t give students simply what you know. Learners have to take it and make it their own and discussion is central to that.”

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5 thoughts on “The role of discussion in engagement”

  1. To someone observing this lesson, it would not be clear how well you thought out this lesson and the reasoning behind your decisions for teaching Romeo and Juliet in this way based on what you found out about the students’ level of understanding. All this deliberation led to improved understanding for the students and for the people reading this, an insight into how we as teachers tirelessly make it our business to improve student learning. Thank you for revealing your thought processes behind this lesson and for providing a wonderful example of how talk, engagement and interaction can make a real difference to understanding Shakespeare!

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