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11.15.19Christine Torres Crushes the ‘Habits of Discussion’

“Start us off, Joseph…”

Every time I watch Christine Torres teach I am inspired. Christine is the Middle School Academic Dean at Springfield Prep in Springfield, MA and a fifth grade teacher there.

She is a teacher of truly epic skill and spirit. To prove it I am going to show you six minutes from her classroom in which she demonstrates as many elements of the technique Habits of Discussion as I have seen in on place. Then I’m going to share a bunch of time-coded notes to describe what I see when I watch her teach. I’m sure you’ll see other things of merit as well.

First here’s the video. In it, students are reading Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a book set during the Nazi occupation of Denmark during World War II. (Actually Christine is teaching a lesson from our curriculum unit on the book). The questions they are discussing is whether five-year old Kirsti is demonstrating bravery when she is defiant in the face of Nazi soldiers.

39:00 “We’re going to have a discussion. I’m going to set the timer for four minutes.” Love this move. Discussion is important but it’s one part of a larger lesson. It’s important to be disciplined about how much time you allocate to it. ‘Calling her shot’ like this makes it public and transparent. She’ll get a reminder in four minutes and everyone will understand what that means. It will be totally logical when it causes her to wrap things up.

39:11 “While I’m calling on teammates to share, I want to see habits of discussion…” Then she follows up with a quick reminder of what the expectations are for a discussion… with a little “why” thrown in. When she says she wants “agreeing, disagreeing or building-on” she’s not just reminding them of how to follow-up a peer’s comment to make sure their comments are connected to and make references to the previous comment, she is reminding them that they have a nonverbal signal they can use to show her which one of those they’d like to do. This system allows her to shape the direction of discussion based on who she calls on. She can glance at the room and choose someone who wants to disagree, or someone who wants to extend and develop the previous idea. You’ll see her do just that in a few minutes. She also stresses tracking the speaker. This is a critical way to build culture–when students do it they not only help themselves pay attention and listen better but they show the speaker that their words matter and this is perhaps the most piece of building a vibrant discussion-oriented culture.

39:28 “Start us off, Joseph…” This is a Cold Call but not an accidental one. It’s carefully planned in two ways. First, everybody wrote their answers first before the discussion started. This means that everyone has something to share. Joseph has spent four minutes thinking about the question so he’s prepared and has lots to say. But also, just before the moment when I started the video, Christine and her co-teacher Kait Smith huddled to talk about who said what in their written responses. They read carefully over students’ shoulders while they read so could deliberately begin with a student who could start the discussion at a place that would make it rich and interesting for those who followed.

40:20 “I’m seeing some disagreement and some agreement…” She “sees” this because of the system I mentioned earlier. Students make a nonverbal signal–at their chest so its subtle–showing how they’re reacting if they have a strong opinion. It’s voluntary but encouraged and students like to do it. This let’s Christine call on Ezekiel who’s hand signal shows his ambiguity. She can shape the direction of the discussion by reading those signals.

40:30 “I think I heard you say that…” Part of Habits of Discussion is teaching students to refer back to the previous answer to show they heard it and then to build off of it. Ezekiel crushes that part–asking Joseph if he heard him correctly and then responding respectfully but clearly in the dissent: “Then I disagree with you, Joseph.” Side note that great comments like Ezekiel’s aren’t much value if everyone can’t hear them so Christine reminds him about the necessity of volume in speaking.

41:02 “I’m looking for someone to build…” Ezekiel’s pushing the class in the right direction so now Christine is explicit: “I’m looking for someone to build on this idea…” She wants a student to elaborate on and extend his critical insight. She’s not doing the talking but she’s still shaping the discussion intentionally. A side note that will become increasingly more important: As I discussed in a previous blog post on Christine’s teaching, she has carefully prepared for the discussion by scripting an ‘exemplar’: the ideal answer. Just that idea–that there IS an ideal, that there are standards of quality, that she should be attentive to whether answers are right and not just heartfelt–is critical. In the story Kirsti is deeply naive- a precocious but oblivious girl who speaks her mind out of childish naivete. She is NOT brave, though she appears it, because she doesn’t understand the risks she is taking. This becomes critically important later when Annemarie steels herself to do something that she is aware is risky by pretending she is Kirsti. All answers here are not equal. Discussions do have right responses and Christine is able to constantly push towards it because she’s thought about where she wants to go beforehand. Also: I love the hilarious and playful reminder to Malasia to face her classmates when she speaks–“Cuz you know the wall doesn’t care….” Malasia crushes it, by the way, both in terms of rephrasing and building on and in terms of getting the book.

42:04 “Oh, yeah” That little a-ha gasp from a student. It all adds up: the culture of listening carefully and tracking and building off each other. A real discussion–which takes a lot of mundane work to build up to–is powerful.

42:40 “Or if you were swayed by your teammates…” Love that she puts value here on changing your mind based on what you hear in the discussion. That’s sort of the point. To listen and change your mind. So she’s building a culture that shows she values it.

43:02 “Here’s my push…” Because she’s thought this though in advance she’s now able to see the issue. It’s about intentionality. Her comment here cracks the case but she lets the kids connect the dots.

44:37 “I’m gonna give you…” This is one of the most important parts. They end the discussion by revising their original thinking in writing. This makes them aware of what they’ve learned and seen differently as a result of the discussion. No wonder they appear to value the process. You can see a template for the overall structure (read-write-discuss-revise) here. There’s also nice culture of error here that reminds me a bit of this clip.

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