Powerful Dialogue: The Beauty of Letting Students “Derail” You

“How did we get here?”

Another student quickly hushes the first, eager to throw me off the scent, wanting to bask a little longer in the belief that they’ve sidetracked me. Truth is: they have. But I let them. In fact, I encouraged them by following their lead, by dancing down the path they’ve beaten ahead of me, chasing their conversation with probing questions to drive it further.

They think they’re getting away with something, but after fifteen minutes or more of passionate and in-depth discussion (even some respectful debating), I think I’m the one getting away with something.

While teaching is certainly an exercise in flexibility, I think we sometimes struggle to let go of the reins and let students take the lead. In my first years of teaching, discussing a piece of literature or (heaven forbid!) an informational text was very much akin to spitting into the wind—futile and altogether an unpleasant mess. I thought I was doing everything right—I assigned deep-thinking, high-level questions to support the reading and diligently walked through them in class. Problem was this strategy left me with glassy-eyed, gaping carps who responded robotically, if at all. I was getting answers, sure, but I wasn’t getting any substance. They were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. But I wasn’t interested in my students being mirrors that reflected my thoughts back to me.

I wanted instead to talk about writing as a reader with them, rather than as a teacher. I wanted to hear their voices and have my own ideas expanded or revised by theirs. I wanted them to rise up to meet me as I sat down among them. And I wanted us to leave the text behind and talk about the parts of ourselves and the parts of our world the text revealed to use, made us question. I mean, that’s why we read in the first place, isn’t it? It’s as much to reflect and comment on the real world as it is to escape from it. I wanted them to be able to answer the questions, “Why are we reading this? How is it relevant?” all on their own. But how could I get them to that point?

Then I started thinking about how my friends and I talk about the books we love, and I realized I had to ditch the script. I had become so focused on sticking to the questions that I was smothering any possible emotional or intellectual spark before it even began to smolder. So, I did the only rational thing I could: I threw everything into the trash. What I assigned to accompany reading became simplified: 1) while reading, create a list of open-ended, thought-provoking questions to ignite discussion; and 2) pick a single excerpt that stood out to you for any reason and write in response to it.

The next day, students come in to find the seats arranged in large circle and me in one of them. They are leery the first time, but shuffle in and find seats. After the initial book talk, they are excited when they come in and find the seats arranged in what has been dubbed “The Happy Circle.” I always open the floor with the same simple question, “So, what did you think about it?” From there, we build on each other’s’ ideas, racing down whatever rabbit hole catches our collective interest. Sure, I have a reserve bank of questions and prompts, if I need them, and they have their own questions and focused responses, but we rarely have to consult them.

And here, I think, is the key to my success: I don’t try to rein them in. I don’t try to corral them back into the boundaries defined by my teacher list of questions. I let them talk—about whatever they needto talk about, about whatever thoughts the text has caught fire, even if the connection seems farfetched at first glance—and I talk with them. Conversation, when unbridled, has a curious tendency to traverse into powerful territory, into things we didn’t even realize we needed to talk about. You can always follow the thread back to the written piece, because it’s there, but what we are talking about is here and now.

Take the conversation that occurred in my Honors 10 course: We were discussing the documentary Black Diamonds, which focuses on the adverse effects of surface mining, specifically mountaintop removal. By the end of the class period, my students were talking to one another about the pink tax and issues regarding women’s bodies and healthcare—all because someone started talking about corruption and the failure of the government to protect the mountains and waterways of our state. Sure, we had strayed from evaluating the rhetoric of the argument presented in Black Diamonds(though, admittedly, only after having thoroughly discussed its strengths and weaknesses), but the discussion these kids were having was real and genuine and deep and powerful.

Nothing I have on my agenda for the day will ever be more important than allowing them to give voice to the issues they are struggling with and working through. This may sound radical, but my goal isn’t to have them wax poetic about Shakespeare or to be able to discuss the themes present in To Kill a Mockingbird, because the stories themselves don’t really matter; what matters is what the stories teach us about life, about society, about the world, the questions they cause us to pose, the inspiration to do and to act upon the world they fill us with—what matters is how they are made relevant by our students. So I will always let them “derail” me, let them lead me off-track, because it’s off the beaten path and in the beauty and wilderness of conversation that we find the most powerful dialogue with our students.

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