Positive classroom climate and student engagement rose to new heights when I introduced dedicated times for collaborative discussions. Oral Tradition Fridays for my freshman and sophomore classes, and Professional Growth Fridays for my juniors and seniors have paid dividends I didn’t even anticipated when this tradition organically emerged.
One Friday two years ago, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill. A lock-down is a drill, similar to fire and tornado drills, where teachers and students go through the steps they would take in the event of an active shooter or a hostage situation.
We have these drills about once a month. I’m lucky to have a classroom in our 75-year-old building that is attached to a long, narrow closet. After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories. The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark.
There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones. After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again, a “real or imagined narrative” rolling out naturally, first-draft fresh.
“We should do this every Friday,” somebody said.
“Can we?” another student asked.
“I like that idea,” I said. It felt subversive, but I knew I could defend this practice in the scope of my curriculum.
I teach creative writing at a large urban school, but anyone who teaches anything anywhere on the planet could do this activity. Oral Tradition Friday (which has morphed into just Oral Friday, with all the attendant high school snickers and winks) hits every speaking and listening standard for social studies and science classrooms as well. Oral Friday has been going on now in my freshman and sophomore classes for two years, and it is, by far, the most successful, engaging lesson I “teach” all week long.
Professional Growth Fridays in my junior and senior classes developed along the same pattern. One Friday, I had assigned a very technical, informational article about how writers select a point of view from which to write a story. My students had annotated the text and were prepared to discuss it. But the weather was perfect and little birds were begging us to come outside. So I told my students to leave everything in the classroom including their painstakingly annotated margins, and we went outside, sat in a circle and discussed point of view. Specifically, we talked about how the article applied to their own writing choices. Now, we do this every Friday. One student is elected to find an article about the professional or technical side of writing, distribute it to the class, and lead the discussion as it applies to their work.
Sitting around in a circle talking is not a new instructional technique. But it seems to happen less and less frequently. The demands of covering standards and integrating technology have crowded out the oldest curriculum trick in the world – tell a story, have a conversation, talk face-to-face with another human.
When I was growing up as the youngest child in a family of five, we always ate dinner together and seemingly— although my memory may have taken a few instances and extrapolated them into an every dinner staple—afterwards we had what my father dubbed “roundtables.” I don’t remember many of the topics, which tended to center around current events, University of Kentucky basketball, the weather – we were farmers— but I remember the feelings it gave me: the feeling of struggling to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and the more important feeling of being taken seriously by an adult when I talked.
Talking to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to talk is an even more powerful one. Make your classroom a place where students can talk about ideas, practice the art of spoken persuasion or storytelling, or inquiry. I have elected Fridays as the day we talk because Fridays, as every educator knows, holds magical powers. The weekend stands within reach. The sun shines a little brighter. Use the charming force of that day to initiate learning that doesn’t appear to be learning.