Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, author of Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul
Table of Contents

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer locates questioning at the heart of understanding: anything that is understood is understood as the response to a question, for the question sets the context or perspective from which the answer is viewed. This book places questioning at the center of teaching and learning, and it explores the way in which, in a particular kind of teaching-and-learning situation, questions may be cultivated.

Chapter 1 - Introduction to Interpretive Discussion
Interpretive discussion is discussion about the meaning of texts. It aims to understand a text, to appreciate its features and meanings, whether one eventually judges them to be right or wrong. It grows from genuine questions that discussants have when they study the text, questions provoked by the desire to understand it. The "clean palate" that Strier, Empson, and others call for is what one might refer to as an open mind: a mind seeking to know the text on its own terms.

Chapter 2 - Finding a Shared Concern: The Project Begins
One day in late November 1996, Paula Baron and Marsha Mason, two graduate education students who aspired to teach in elementary school, entered my office. They shared the following frustrating situation:

"We were sitting in the hallway [of a suburban school] discussing Langston Hughes's poem 'Mother to Son' with a group of fourth graders. It was a poem we both loved about an African American woman who gives her son advice about how to handle the struggles in life. As the conversation advanced, we began to exchange disturbed glances as we listened to what our students were saying about the mother: 'She has very bad grammar.' 'She needs to go to the Reading Lab.' 'She sounds like she didn't learn English very good.' 'She had a bad life, maybe she did drugs or something.' Just a week earlier, we had led a similar discussion with a group of inner-city fourth graders. Their comments about the mother had been strikingly different: 'She didn't depend on anyone, and she worked for herself.' 'She didn't have people doing things for her.' 'She's been through rough days and good days, too.'"

And so the two teacher leader candidates designed a project in which they led a series of interpretive discussions with two groups of fourth grade students, one from an urban school (Central) and the other from a suburban school (Sheridan). The texts came from a variety of cultures, and Marsha and Paula wanted to learn whether discussing them would help the students become more tolerant of others coming from socio-cultural backgrounds unlike their own. I studied them as they pursued their project, and my question was: How can I, a teacher educator, help Marsha and Paula become effective leaders of interpretive discussion?

Chapter 3 - Finding a Shared Concern: The project Continues
In Week 3 of the project, after they had led the discussions of The Giving Tree in both schools, Marsha and Paula returned to Central to help the group there reflect on a story from Africa called "Kaddo's Wall." Week 4 took them back to Sheridan with "Kaddo's Wall," and in Weeks 5 and 6 they visited Central and Sheridan, respectively, to explore a story from Africa titled "Allah Will Provide." In Weeks 7 and 8 the co-leaders turned to a tale from the French Canadian tradition titled "Jean Labadie's Big Black Dog."

Chapter 4 - Mixing the Groups
From the beginning of the project, the co-leaders had considered mixing the two groups for conversations about the fifth and final text. They wanted to give all participants an opportunity to converse with students from the other group. Yet they had been hesitant, fearing that the discussion might not go well.

Nevertheless, the question that had been present from the start moved the co-leaders to take the plunge and mix the two groups: Would experience in the discussions help participants draw out ideas and gain insight from each other despite differences in race, socioeconomic class, and school or home culture? Would they show tolerance and perhaps appreciation for the others and their views - others who might appear unlike themselves in some ways? The reader sees evidence that participation in interpretive discussion develops the habits and skills needed to cultivate questions - to identify things people wish to learn. It teaches them how to explore texts to find evidence with which to address the questions. And as they pursue investigation, discussion participants develop habits of reflection, including those of listening, speaking clearly, and patiently relating what is said, heard, and read about the point of doubt so as to clarify and resolve it. They also learn how to listen to the ideas of others, work to understand them, relate them to their own ideas, and hence, to tolerate and appreciate others who have different perspectives and may come from racial, cultural, economic, or religious backgrounds that differ from their own.

Chapter 5 - Learning to Question
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 show two groups of fourth-grade students learning to participate in discussion about the meaning of texts. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that their progress, at least in part, is made possible by the growth in the discussion-leading skills of Marsha and Paula, the co-leaders. In Chapter 5, the reader sees how features of the questions they prepared prior to the discussions seemed to affect the ability of both groups to form genuine questions about the meaning of the stories and to pursue resolution. In Chapter 6, the focus is upon some of the discussion-leading patterns that Marsha and Paula evolved - patterns which appear to be related to their preparations for discussion. Analysis of the patterns, like exploration of the written preparations, helps explain why the classroom conversations proceeded as they did.

Chapter 6 - Learning to Lead Discussion
Marsha and Paula had studied interpretive discussion before the project began. They knew that the goal is to help the group form a question about the meaning of the text and to address it. I encouraged them to open the discussion with their genuine question or to ask the students for theirs. In addition, I encouraged the co-leaders to ask the discussants for textual evidence that supported (or contradicted) claims about the meaning of the story, and I recommended that they help all students speak at least three times during the discussion, inviting reluctant participants into the conversation. Although they followed my injunctions, Marsha and Paula also developed discussion leading patterns for themselves that proved efficacious, such as posing fewer questions and repeating them more frequently, identifying similarities and differences they heard between students' views, and in a variety of ways, questioning the students so as to better understand their ideas. All of these practices helped the co-leaders to listen better.

Chapter 7 - Implications for Educators
The case study explored in Chapters 2-6 has implications for teacher preparation. First, it suggests that teacher candidates need opportunities to lead interpretive discussions so as to develop the skills of so doing. Second, they need to prepare for discussion leading by developing clusters of questions about the meaning of the texts that they discuss with the students. Preparing clusters of questions familiarizes the leaders with both facts and points of ambiguity in the text. Third, the teacher candidates need to reflect upon the discussions that they lead so as to understand what transpires in terms of the ideas that are discussed, the relations between people, and the skills and habits of mind that they and the discussants develop. Finally, the evidence from the case study suggests that teacher candidates, as well as their students, need to participate in interpretive discussions so as to discover the rewards and the challenges of so doing. The teacher preparation program at Northwestern University provides one example of how these opportunities may be offered to aspiring educators.

In this book I have argued that participating in interpretive discussion can help students cultivate genuine questions. They do so by finding points of ambiguity in texts, constructing and evaluating arguments to resolve them, clarifying questions and statements, listening to challenging perspectives, and thus coming to understand things they do not know and want to find out. Furthermore, we have seen students and teachers alike persevering with these tasks in the face of confusion, fatigue, and frustration. The data from the case study, as well as those gathered subsequently from polling people in the Master of Science in Education program at Northwestern University, suggest that participating in interpretive discussion can engage people in reflection. It can, as [Hull, Rose, Fraser, and Castellano] say, "create a different kind of classroom discourse and a different level of engagement."

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