A silent discussion

chalk talk example

Some of my 9th graders’ thoughts on Bossuet’s Divine Right of Kings

I tried something new with my World History classes today, and I loved it enough I think I’m going to make it a regular thing.  My dilemma for today was that it was National Day of Silence, a day on which students undertake to remain silent all day in sympathy with LGBT students whose voices are silenced every day by the weight of societal disapproval.  Usually, I have only a handful of students observing the day in each class, and we manage in one way or another, but this year I had an entire class of activists, so I had to do something different.  What I did was hold a silent “chalk talk.”

This is an idea that I got from my colleague Heather White (thanks, Heather!);  I think it comes from the Coalition of Essential Schools.  It’s described here:  Chalk Talk Protocol. The basic idea is to capture a discussion, visually, on a chalk board/SmartBoard/very large piece of paper.  One starts with a central question in the middle, and participants write answers/reactions/etc. around it.  The result, when it works right, is a clear representation of an issue in its complexity.  It is, I think, better at capturing complexity than at boiling things down, although patterns do eventually emerge if one sticks with it long enough.

So here’s what I did:

1) I started with the text.  They had read a three-page primary source (a selection from Bossuet about divine right) for homework.  I asked them to spend 10 minutes annotating their copy–with the goal of getting them to look more closely at the language–and then asked them to swap papers with a neighbor and compare each other’s annotations.  This gave them a shared basis in detail to start from.

2) I gave them the question for the day:  “What can we learn from Bossuet?” and briefly explained chalk talks.  I emphasized the fact that I wanted them to connect with each other’s ideas:  not merely to collect a lot of unconnected points side by side but to ask questions, take points further, agree and disagree, or make connections between points.

3) After things had wound down (mostly because they ran out of room on the chalkboard), I asked each student to summarize the discussion in one or two sentences.  I then had them pass these around, adding comments as desired, until each had made its way the whole way around the room.  I thought this last step was particularly important because it forced students to step back from the forest of details and draw some conclusions;  on an ordinary day, I’d probably do that part out loud.

What I loved about this:

  • Participation was huge! Something about the silent format drew out some of my usually quiet girls, and I felt that there was a stronger sense of group ownership of the end result.
  • The discussion was deeper.  While in oral discussions my girls often spend a lot of time repeating points already made, here they could keep track of what was already established, with the result that they pushed the discussion further.
  • The points were better.  Something about the written format drew out some very thoughtful, sophisticated comments from students who sometimes just say “that was weird, man!”

Things I’d do differently next time:

  • In one class, students got so interested in their written arguments that things dissolved into three separate, unconnected debates in different corners of the board.  Next time, I think I’d build in ‘pull back and look at the big picture’ time about half way through, or else oblige people to move around.
  • The “passing notes” part of the lesson tended to develop bottlenecks, as some students commented much more than others.  Next time, I’d build in a time limit:  one minute, then switch, repeat.

These are minor quibbles:  the bottom line is that I loved the way the chalk talk made my girls’ thinking visible and challenged them to take it further.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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