A Reflection That I Never Imagined I Would Write

When I sat down to write and reflect upon my teaching this spring, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be sharing that I actually cried when I learned that school was closed for the rest of the academic year.

Nor did I ever imagine that everyone in the entire world would be in the situation in which we find ourselves right now.

Nor is the virtual classroom the format for teaching and learning that I prefer.

And yet, here I am- and here we all are- having to stop, breathe, and rethink what we can offer our students and how we can support them through this global pandemic. School buildings are closed until the end of the academic year, and we are confronted with a new host of challenges, both personal and professional.

We know that learning is deeply grounded in relationships, and this is why many of us love our work so deeply, because we can work with children and watch them grow. So how can we continue to build upon the relationships we have built with students so far in the year and how can we connect with them as human beings in a virtual world? This is the story I feel compelled to share; it is writing itself every day. This story is unfolding, and I do not know how it will end as I am in the weeds of this work right now.

As many of you know, I teach “Strategies in Classroom Dialogue” at my school- a class that is designed for sophomores who are interested in student leadership and school transformation. They become skilled in the Harkness pedagogy, an instructional strategy where students drive the conversation and use critical thinking skills to deeply analyze complex text. These young people become leaders in Harkness and work with faculty and with their peers to teach the skills of civil discourse and Harkness dialogue to everyone at school. Over the course of the year they have become experts at leading classroom discussions, presenting to faculty meetings, giving in-service workshops at other schools and presenting at state and regional conferences. 

But now we cannot have face to face dialogue, and like everyone else I have been forced to rethink everything that I was doing with my students in this Harkness class. Harkness is  grounded in personal relationships, collaboration, inquiry, mutual respect, trust, and face to face dialogue. My class has built these relationships from the beginning of the year, but now we can only see each other on a screen. I asked myself, “how can we implement continuity of learning when the concept of an “online Harkness discussion” is a virtual oxymoron?” ( no pun intended )

 So, I decided to do something radical. I reached out to students to help me design and try an online Harkness.

I pitched this idea to the students, “Hey, friends, want to try a virtual Harkness?” I asked during our first Google Meet session. A few of my students peered at me quizzically from their computer screens. I could see they thought I was crazy, but most of the class responded, “Let’s give it a try!” This is the magic that can unfold when students and teachers work together to craft learning opportunities. 

To begin, I asked each student to choose a piece of text that they thought would be of high interest for a Harkness discussion -something that they thought provided an offering or a 

message or meaning beyond the text. I told them that they each would be responsible for planning and facilitating a Harkness discussion on the material that they chose. Students selected video clips, newspaper articles, short stories, essays and poems- even an excerpt from the Black Mirror TV series. After deciding what they wanted to Harkness on, I asked them to write a paragraph as to why they chose their particular selection. One student chose an article on wealth inequality in America. She wrote:

“I chose “Privilege is a Privilege, and a Responsibility” because it is a text that questions our culture around privilege in America. In this article, Tony Schwartz highlights that despite their hard work, many people like the man at the deli are barely making it by while others may be born into enough wealth to barely have to ever work. He focuses on what this means psychologically and how our privilege and wealth can determine how willing we are to help those in need and even how difficult it may be for the privileged to see a need.  I think this is a good starting point because it zeroes in on America so that people can be more connected to the issue. At a time right now where we are in an economic crisis caused by COVID-19, many people are losing their jobs, their security, their routine, etc., this is going to become an even more prominent issue for Americans. This is one person’s perspective on the issue, but it may guide people to think about their stance on the issue and what opportunities their position can offer them to make a difference.” 

Their next assignment was to design a prep sheet for the discussion. The prep sheet is designed to direct students to read closely and consider issues raised in complex text. Here is the prep sheet that this student created:

‘Privilege is Privilege, but also a Responsibility’ Prep Sheet

What are some causes of, and solutions to, income inequality that are outlined in the article? Give three examples and explain. What assertions does the author make about privilege that relate to your life or our lives in Vermont?

Choose three other lines, quotes, or sections that you think are important for us to discuss. Write them out here.
What questions do you have about this article? Write them out and identify them as clarifying or probing.

How could someone like you make a difference for someone like the man at the deli?

Students then needed to complete their own prep sheet to see if it needed to be modified or revised (note- they had to do this themselves; my feedback came later). They then submitted a lesson plan for their discussion- including ideas for icebreaker, how to open the discussion, a list of essential questions they thought their article raised and a list of strategies as to what they might do if the discussion got off track. They also had to plan for a debriefing of the discussion. Then came the fun part! I asked each student to create a FLIPGRID video to “sell their discussion and create excitement and interest.”  We all watched each other’s FLIPGRIDS!

This week, we began our online Harkness discussions, facilitated by the students. Before the first discussion, the students anticipated that we needed new NORMS for online discussions. Here is what the students created and posted on our google classroom:

Hello and Welcome!

Here are the few norms that we are going to ask everyone to follow for our  online Harkness discussions. Please read over them and then follow the instructions below:

  1. Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio.
  2. Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk) We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting. 
  3. If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.
  4. Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.
  5. Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.
  6. If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.
  7. Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.
  8. Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!
  9. Please remember to monitor your airtime, and that you can still invite others to speak.
  10. Lastly, but most importantly, we are all in this together, so let’s have fun, learn new things, and try our best!

Our first discussion on “Privilege is a Privilege” went for an hour until I asked the facilitator to wrap it up (I was getting a headache from looking at the screen.) During our discussions, I (mostly) stayed silent and tracked the discussion. We have limited the size of the discussions to eight people so everyone can have an opportunity to speak. After the discussion, we all debriefed what happened and made suggestions as to what might improve our next Harkness discussion.

The map of our online Harkness discussion looked like this:

A close up of text on a white background

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We will be Harknessing twice a week from now until the rest of the semester. Our first attempts have been a big success. Granted, online Harkness does not begin to resemble face to face interaction. They are a myriad of problems with connectivity, time lag and students’ body language in front of the computer- but we are trying. Students are engaged, and we are learning from one another. They look forward to our dialogues. We are getting better every day.

This new adventure we are all on will continue to unfold, kind of a “choose your own adventure” series–with few choices and no ending in sight. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. But, when we as teachers work to build a strong classroom culture, when we nurture personal relationships, and when we partner with students to create learning experiences that allow them to exercise their authentic voice bits of magic CAN happen…

I don’t know about you but, I am ready for Spring and a vacation from the computer! I will look forward to digging in my garden and staying off the screen. Mostly importantly, I am grateful for my students and this opportunity to work together in the short time we have left together this year.

And to everyone out there- MY BEST- I miss you!

Kathy Cadwell

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