Words, Words, Words: Generating Authentic Participation in the High School English Classroom
“She was uncomfortable with what the professors called ‘participation,’ and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what” (164).– from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As an English teacher, I believe that classroom discourse provides an incredible forum for students to explore their ideas, learn from their peers (yes, Vygotsy’s zone of proximal development), and develop their thinking. It also prepares students for writing about text. But I have always struggled with how to assess students’ speaking skills as demonstrated in classroom discussion and to assign a participation grade. For me, it is an age old question of quantity vs. quality — do I just want to hear students say something or do I care about what they say? And what are the instructional strategies that encourage discussion and participation among students?
In the Beginning
Two years ago, in my first year of teaching Advanced Placement (AP) Literature and Composition, I decided to make participation worth 20% of student grades to encourage active, engaging discussion and mimic the grade-breakdown of a college-level course. I also wanted to send the message to students that discussion is important because we know that knowledge is socially constructed and because this open forum can actually help students form ideas. But measuring student participation felt overwhelming, especially due to its subjective nature and the awareness that every student processes ideas and learns differently, so I quietly strayed from putting such weight on it in a final grade.
The next year, I planned to devise a system to track student participation as part of my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry. I wanted to know who was participating, how frequently, and what they had to say. Initially I kept notes about those who entered into the discussion; then, using a system of checkmarks and other notations, I tried to evaluate the worth of these student contributions. But translating my notes into a grade just felt terrible every time. And I didn’t want to foster a discussion protocol where students focus on raising their hands and getting their points; as one student reflected after an early discussion, “I felt like people were pressured to speak up to get credit and weren’t necessarily bringing up topics that truly interested us.”
I hoped to foster an environment where students find value in their own thoughts and others’ by sharing and hearing ideas in an open forum. With that in mind, my inquiry evolved as I became interested in exploring strategies that would encourage authentic, equitable discussion among all of my AP Lit students — whether they be the next valedictorian, a painfully shy wallflower, a language learner, or a class clown.
Asking Students, Finding Balance
I decided to look to my students for guidance after we had read and worked extensively with Hamlet. I asked them: which means of discussion do you like best and why? This approach — asking students what they liked in terms of discussion and what they got out of discussion — began when Mills Teacher Scholars Associate Director, Claire Bove, interviewed a few of my students and asked them just that.
When I did survey students, my initial reaction to my findings was that they were not that surprising nor especially helpful. Student responses divided almost 50/50 — half saying that it is “nice to occasionally break into smaller groups before discussing as a class” or that it is hard to “jump into class discussions just because I am not comfortable doing it” and the other half noting that they “prefer whole-class discussions because I like to hear all the great things people have to say and I think we have even more in-depth conversations than just in pairs or small groups.” This was nothing new. I would need a balance between small-group and whole-class formats.
But as I read and reread student responses, I gleaned something else that provided more insight into my planning and instruction: most students preferred a more free-form, less-structured discussion forum. In other words, students did not want me to provide them a list of questions that they had to answer and discuss nor did they want me to mandate the same rigid format for discussion every time. I felt a thrill at this early sign of student engagement and agency in being the directors of their own conversations; however, I also had some reservations that discussions would become disorganized free-for-alls.
After some initial experimentation with classroom discussion and further surveying of my students, I decided that while there would be a place for whole-class open-ended discussions in our classroom, at times I must at least provide a loose structure or format. I made this choice after getting the same message about whole-class discussion from a variety of students: as one summarized, “I could not really find a time to jump-in [the] conversation.” Students identified the causes of this as follows: discussion topics jumped around too quickly, other classmates said what they wanted to say, or they felt like they were interrupting the discussion if posing a new topic.
I spent the next few months adapting teaching strategies to foster discussion. Again, the results were mixed. But I kept coming back to that tried and true strategy of giving students time to think alone or in a small group before expanding into a whole-class format. The whip around held its place as a favorite — asking every student to raise his or her voice before opening the floor for discussion. But even better were discussion stations– a discussion idea that sprung from the centers my mom always used in her kindergarten classroom. Students would select to visit maybe three of five stations — each station presenting a broad question or an artifact related to the text at hand — and spend about 15 minutes before everyone would move on to another station. New students arriving at a station would find the notes, drawings and musings from the previous group and could build on that if they chose, or start down a new path. Station work culminated in a whole-class wrap-up (click here for more detailed instructions and examples of this strategy).
As students became more comfortable with our classroom discourse — both in small groupings and as a whole class — I was thrilled to hear from more students each week. But still, there were some students who rarely spoke up. And when I called on them and asked for a reaction or thought, I would often see wide eyes and flushed faces. I felt frustrated as a string of questions flew into my mind: was this due to low confidence? a lack of motivation? a lack of practice or skills? And even more concerning, I wondered, was I placing too much emphasis on hearing every student’s voice in discussion? Was there some other measurement of participation I was overlooking?
Meili helped me answer this question. A focused and capable student, she rarely raised her hand during whole class discussion. In that first student survey, she reflected, “There were definitely times when I felt like I wanted to say something but I was too shy about it or [didn’t] feel like I could put my thoughts into coherent sentences.” Even after I had validated the worth of her ideas on multiple occasions, in the spring Meili still noted that she felt “slow when it comes to formulating my thoughts and expressing them out in a large group.” I was shocked to read this from one of the most articulate and sophisticated writers and thinkers in my AP class. I realized I had to step back and really see what was happening for her in my classroom. During station work, Meili’s notes littered the page; Meili confidently took the lead when she and a partner presented a poetry lesson to the class; and Meili’s intricate and thoughtful artwork served as the centerpiece for her small group to share their analysis of a novel with classmates. Meili was participating. It just didn’t fit into my initial definition of participation.
And then I saw it. During station work, Meili’s notes littered the page; Meili confidently took the lead when she and a partner presented a poetry lesson to the class; and Meili’s intricate and thoughtful artwork served as the centerpiece for her small group to share their analysis of a novel with classmates. Meili was participating. It just didn’t fit into my initial definition of participation.
So when recently reading Americanah by Nigerian author Chamanda Ngozie Adichie, I had one of those aha! moments. The perceptions of Ifemelu, the novel’s narrator, echo my concerns about the weight placed on participation in American schools: I do not want to encourage students to say anything just for the sake of saying something — “class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words.” But I do want them to participate.
My inquiry did not result in the grading system I set out to develop; however, I have emerged with a much broader, much richer concept of participation. This includes an ongoing recognition of the need for multiple modes of discourse in the classroom as entry points for diverse students to participate. It also means recognizing that participation is more than the words spoken aloud in whole-class discussion. This new concept of participation may also signal the start of a new inquiry, one that delves deeper into student listening and metacognition. I am confident that as I prepare the next group of students, we will all understand classroom participation a little differently — participation that is more authentic, more equitable, and not strictly limited to whole-class discussions.
Juliet Radford is a ten-year veteran English teacher at Albany High School. Although she has taught across all grade levels, her current assignment is in Advanced Placement (AP) Literature and Composition, the focus for her Mills Teacher Scholars work. Beyond her role in the classroom, Juliet enjoys mentoring new teachers, and advising the school’s buildOn chapter, supporting students in raising enough money to build schools in rural villages in Nepal, Nicaragua, and Haiti. She is excited about working with the Mills Teacher Scholar Leader Network in the 2015-16 school year.