Classroom Management

Encouraging High School Students to Think Deeply, Alone and Together

One teacher guides her students to think deeply first in conversation with her, then with a peer and a larger group.

August 8, 2022
Rido / Shutterstock

In nearly a decade of teaching, I have taught in eight classrooms. And in those classrooms, I have agonized over every possible seating arrangement to maximize space, comfort, attention, and, lately, social distancing.

Playing Tetris with 30 desks is a high-stakes game, one that forces teachers to ask themselves difficult questions. Sometimes those are relational: “How can I ensure that every kid feels seen?” And sometimes the questions come from that day’s instructional needs: “How can I foster small group discussion in the beginning of the period and independent reflection at the end?”

While these questions are important, the time came for me to stop worrying so much about where students were sitting. Instead, I started thinking about what ideas my students are sitting with—and how much space I was giving them to do that.

My inspiration was Henry David Thoreau. He wrote, “I had three chairs in my house. One for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.” Sherry Turkle, in her phenomenal book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, challenged readers to consider how social media’s constant connection has robbed many adolescents of Thoreau’s recommendation for productive introspection and selective company.

These ideas led me to create what I call One Chair Moments, Two Chair Moments, and Three Chair Moments, though they aren’t really about chairs or seating. I teach the quote and structure to my students in the beginning of the year, so the following ideas become a shared class vocabulary.

One Chair Moments Are for Encouraging Students to Think Deeply

Are you giving your students intentional space to think? It’s part of our job to introduce students to the joy of sitting with their own thoughts.

Email your students: This low-stakes weekly email between you and your students individually should ask the question, “What have you been thinking about lately?” When I first do this assignment, I often have students write me back saying, “I’ve been so overwhelmed with school that I haven’t been thinking about anything!”

That should be a red flag for us as educators, but it’s also a powerful step toward growing a student’s metacognition. Challenge them to think, and when it is time for them to think about your class content, they will likely do so more richly.

Write back to all those emails: I have taught anywhere from 75 to 180 students a year, and of course the number of students you have in a given year will impact how lengthy your responses are. But don’t make the early mistake I made and equate length with value. In just a few sentences, you can ensure that a student feels heard, and that’s the real point. With permission, share a few students’ thoughts in class to show them that the quality of their thinking has impacted yours.

Two Chair Moments Focus on Relationships

Are you being intentional about setting aside space for relationship building? In her TED Talk, veteran teacher Rita Pierson famously said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I’d agree—and I’d also add that it goes further than just student-teacher bonds. Kids don’t learn as well around kids they don’t know or trust. That means student-student bonding is just as important as student-teacher bonding.

Go further with your weekly email described earlier: You’ll notice that several students who never speak to each other in class are actually thinking about similar things. This is when I ask the students for permission to share excerpts of their reflection with each other—the answer has always been yes.

I copy the relevant sections, add a question or observation, and ask that they “reply all” if they want to respond. In this way, I’ve seen deep respectful friendships form with email chains in the hundreds—all from students who sat next to each other without saying a word. That is the power of challenging students to have a Two Chair Moment.

Say yes to ideas that allow your students to feel like individuals: Work hard to eliminate any obstacles in their way as they build friendships based on that individuality. One year I had a student who liked tea, so I brought in an electric kettle. And then we were holding weekly tea parties with her whole class during lunch. Another year I had a student who loved to garden, so I brought in a plant. And then other people brought her plants, and my classroom looked like a greenhouse. I knew these things because of the weekly emails, but I acted on them to build Two Chair Moments.

Three Chairs Moments Go Beyond Class Time

Are you creating space for your students to interact with society? When I became a teacher, the last step of the writing process was publication, which meant stapling students’ papers to a bulletin board in my classroom. And that mattered. But if successful learning looks like students thinking or talking about my class outside of school hours, I want to encourage them to share their thoughts and make an impact outside of my classroom. That is ownership. That is a Three Chair Moment.

Hold a TED Talk–inspired event after school: Invite other teachers and students to watch your class present short speeches on something they have experienced or a conviction they hold deeply.

Get the wider community involved: Once you have a really good idea of what your students are interested in, look at your own social network. Teachers know everybody: These people can be guest speakers, sources for internships, and, most powerfully, community mentors for your students.

You can create space for kids to sit with the things that matter. That should be their thoughts, their conversations, and their growing impact on the community around them.

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Filed Under

  • Classroom Management
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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