561. About a Discussion

Rick Last, the fourth grade teacher I’m working with this year, recently had his class read A Hundred Dresses, a book about the way some children deal with a child who is different. It’s a well-written, powerful book, and it has some important things to teach children. I observed quietly as Rick led a discussion about an issue the book raised. In the book, one child, Wanda, was an object of ridicule. Another, Peggy, was popular, and led the taunting. A third, Maddie, wanted to be friends with Peggy, but did not want to be part of the cruelty. Instead, she stood quietly while the other children laughed at Wanda.
Rick asked the children whether Maddie was just as guilty as Peggy. Like most adults I know who work with children, Rick has strong feelings about this. So do I. In fact, I had things I wanted to say, and at first, I raised my hand to contribute my two cents. Rick wisely did not call on me. If he had called on me, I would have said what I thought, and in the minds of most of the children, my words would have had too much weight. After all, I’m an adult! Why struggle with a difficult issue when there’s an adult right there to show the way?
Once I realized why Rick was neither offering his own opinion nor letting me offer mine, I was able to see what I consider masterful teaching. Rick listened closely to each child’s words. He asked questions that elicited elaborations and clarifications, but he was not cross-examining the children – not trying to lead them to a conclusion he’d picked out for them. I know that like me, Rick considers Maddie just as guilty as Peggy – believes that everyone is equally responsible for fairness and kindness.
But not all of the children in the class were saying that. Some were, but others said that it was worse to lead people in doing something wrong than to just let something wrong happen. I felt the urge to preach, but thanks to Rick, I didn’t. I’ve done that a few times over the years, and it hasn’t been as effective as what I saw Rick doing. He was leading a seminar, not lecturing or preaching.
Recess was next, and most children went right to their basketball, soccer, and four-square games. (Heavy seminar or not, they were still children.) But a few of them kept the discussion going outside. This was about more than some characters in a book; it was about how to live.
Once in a while, lecturing is an effective technique. Some information and some ideas are right for children sooner than children are ready to find them on their own. And it’s not always easy to decide what to do; it’s not always obvious whether a teacher would do best to talk or listen. But what I saw Rick doing during that discussion – letting the discussion happen and making sure each child was heard – was what I consider an example of the best of teaching.

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