* Have a goal or an objective or a critical rationale – a spine, if you will – for the session, and try to link all comments to it. There’s no need to be overly fussy about this, but you must show students this is NOT a random bull session. Many students have been conditioned to believe that when the teacher steps from behind the lectern and asks for their input, they (the students) can all relax and share their feelings, opinions, politics and family history.
You do NOT want to be in the room when this happens.
This fuzzy, sprawling, pseudo-academic, late-night coffee-house, teenage-angst talk therapy session needs to be nipped in the bud immediately: “Today, we’ll explore the nature of _____ in Ch. ____ of ______.” “Let’s talk for a while about the role of older women in the first third of Huckleberry Finn.” This will help keep the discussion focused, will help keep it moving, progressing toward an attainable goal. All the comments become barnacles attaching themselves to the same sunken ship.
* Having a goal or an objective isn’t the same as having an agenda. If you have an agenda, i.e., your own favorite interpretation of a story or poem or historical incident, you’ll tend to ask questions that nudge your students in the direction of your interpretation. “So can you see where Twain was probably ridiculing the Grangerfords’ lack of taste?” “Yes.” “Anyone else?” Silence.
When students catch on to your manipulative line of questioning, their responses may degenerate into the “I-think-what-you-want-us-to-say” variety. That’s just embarrassing.
The agenda-ridden discussion doesn’t really go anywhere, and there doesn’t tend to be any original insights, though it certainly keeps you from having to think on your feet. Your particular reading of a text or event is free to live another day and you still will not have experienced the net-less terror of having to reconsider, revise or defend it in front of a live audience.
If you have become quite attached to your interpretation, you can still share it, but why not give your students a crack at articulating one of their own first? It will give them a great deal of confidence and make them look forward to playing this game again some day. They’ll remember this class and this topic longer because of the role you let them play. One day they’ll e-mail or text or Facebook you and thank you for letting them think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.
That is not to say that this is all about making them feel good about themselves. Maybe they will, but the important achievement is you’ve allowed them to join in legitimate academic discourse and they can see that it’s not just people shouting each other down, but a quite exhilarating, if taxing, activity that serves as a training ground for critical reading, thinking on their feet, analysis, arguing with evidence, careful listening, patience, tolerance and the expression of feelings.
So let’s recap this balancing act quickly: You can’t let an academic discussion go wherever it wants, but at the same time you, the teacher, cannot know exactly where it’s headed. Leave room for the students to surprise themselves and you, so that you, too, are forced to think on your feet and work on synthesizing fresh ideas into, well, something.
Stephen Brookfield , author of The Skillful Teacher, likens this to white-water rafting: Your discussion now has a destination (down river), but there are many ways to get there. Students may go from shore to shore as long as they’re still in the river. They may not reach the destination the way you had in mind or the most efficient way, but they’ll still get there. They may bring up questions and issues you aren’t prepared for, but, hey, you’re a teacher: Deal with it! Just avoid the rocks!