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Today I observed a 10th-grade Honors English class at a reasonably affluent local high school, as part of an assignment for the course I’m taking in Differentiated Instruction. This class functioned a lot like the ones I was in in high school; the teacher led a class discussion, pointing out connections students may not have noticed (between a description of night and Milton’s description of Hell, for example) at appropriate times, and encouraging students to think and formulate their own analyses. There were some really insightful comments from some students, and about half of the class contributed to the discussion, with a few students leading the way. Thinking back on it, that’s about how my hs classes were; I was usually one of the kids monopolizing the conversation. I was one of the ones who spoke up when that silence of nonparticipation grew. In this class, the students were well-behaved, and the teacher told me that this is “a good class.” It sure seems like it, right? Everyone listened quietly when one of their peers spoke, and half of the 20 students were actively contributing to the conversation. But half of them weren’t.

This teacher told me, after the class, that the whole-group discussion is his go-to model, because he wants all the students to be exposed to the same material and ideas, and he wants to make sure certain ideas are included*. Fair enough. But is being exposed to these important ideas enough? If they’re trying to, as a group, form an intelligent and thoughtful analysis of The Things They Carried, with everyone coming to more or less the same understanding, great. This class structure works, more or less, to create that analysis. But I don’t think that should be the goal, I really don’t. The literature is not the alpha and the omega; the literature is there to teach you how to think about it. An essential part of the Reader Response idea as I understand it, and Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” is that the art is made within the individual. Everyone has a different background, a different perspective from which they approach a piece of literature. This teacher didn’t by any measure deny that–he supported students’ interpretations and opinions–but I think he could have done more to encourage it. In this scenario, only the students who wanted to had to think about the text and what it meant**.

In small groups, the silent half of the class would have had no choice but to speak up. I think there is great value in talking through one’s thoughts***, especially with other people. I know that this process helps me formulate and expand my thoughts, and I think a lot of people function similarly. With fewer people involved in the conversation, each participant would have more of an opportunity to work with their own ideas and those of their peers, instead of hearing the opinions of a few (and possibly letting them pass right on out of their minds).

This school’s English department doesn’t have set classrooms, and the day has shorter, 45-minute class periods, which can impede grouping. But the classroom I observed in had tables of two, allowing for pair work. And in a discussion, how important are desks, anyway? It could work to have the students at a front desk flip around and talk to the folks behind them.

To sum up, and record in my brain for the days when I am teaching English: the kids who were involved made great points, but there’s no way to know what was going on in the minds of the students who just sat there. If they’re not engaged, are they really learning?****

*This could be accomplished in other ways, I’m sure. An introduction to the whole class with the Milton connection; a wrap-up at the end hitting key points.
**This wasn’t the only means of assessing student analysis this teacher planned for, of course. Every student has to write an essay, and this school’s English curriculum is set up such that students write first drafts, conference with the teacher about it, and then submit a revision.
***That is, essentially, the point of this blog post, after all.
****Before the discussion, the class had 10 minutes of silent reading. Every single person in the classroom was fully engaged in their reading for at least 9 of those minutes, except for me. I did join in, but I also took some time to gauge participation, and figure out what the kids were reading. Answer: everything from the day’s homework assignment to textbooks to Grisham novels.