Yesterday my 8th graders had their first Around Table discussions of the year. The Around Table is a structure of formalized classroom discussion that allows the students to be totally in control of the conversation. They don’t raise their hands to speak, but rather work to have a natural conversation around a topic. It’s a kind of formal behavior/ etiquette placed on discussion that the students have readily absorbed and integrated into their way of being, at least around the table. They learn to refer by name to the ideas of others, make connections to other texts we have read and to other events, movies, and experiences. They learn to ask questions of their peers. They learn to become comfortable with silences. They learn to encourage the shyer voices to participate. They learn to use text references as support for the ideas they share. I don’t even sit at the table with them, but rather actively observe their interactions from outside the circle. There are always 3 or 4 observers for every discussion aside from myself—a geographer who maps how the discussion travels across and around the table; a statistician who monitors how many text references are made, how many interruptions occur, connections made, questions asked; and a historian who records the thread of the content of the conversation. At the end of each discussion, the observers share the data they collected and we have a meta discussion about the quality of the conversation itself. At our school we begin practicing this method in the 6th grade. By the 8th grade, the students are pretty skilled and solidly aware of its expectations.
Yesterday’s conversations were wonderful. We are presently reading Warriors Don’t Cry, the memoir of one of the Little Rock Nine— Melba Patillo, and the students were grappling with the issue of 200 hardcore segregationists (of whom 40 to 50 were physically violent and abusive) controlling the school and the other 1800 or so students, faculty, and staff being “bystanders” to the abuse perpetrated on the Little Rock Nine.
My students were thoughtful, sincerely engaged, generous with the ideas of others, and really listening to each other, a few finding themselves changing or tweaking their point of view when they heard the insights of their peers. They placed themselves in the event itself, wondering whether they could themselves have carried out integration as students of color, and later a few admitted that they probably would have been bystanders themselves—something they were not very proud of. Even the fire drill in the afternoon didn’t disrupt the flow of the conversation, as we all sat back down to pick up the threads of the ideas shared before we departed. The conversations felt organic and meaningful and alive.
It struck me that I had nothing to do with the quality and compassion in yesterday’s conversations. The students I saw yesterday and their gentle and genuine interactions did not spring fully-formed at birth. These students had clearly been nurtured and encouraged, guided and taught, given room to explore and strengthen their own voices by their teachers in previous grades.
The Around Tables weren’t perfect yesterday. There were a couple of students in my morning class who didn’t participate (though they were engaged). There were interruptions and the students could have made many more text references than they did. I know there will no doubt be some train wrecks of Around Tables by the time June rolls around, and I am fully aware that the developmental trajectory of Middle School students can be pretty bumpy and inconsistent.
But right now I am feeling pretty blessed that both the students and I got to reap the results of the conscientious, earnest, and dedicated efforts of my colleagues. It takes a village.