George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Elementary school children sitting on the floor listening to their teacher

Learning communities are networks, systems that themselves grow and learn, propelled by the interactions of their members. Socratic spaces are a vital network element enabling learning for both individuals and groups, created by a collection of mindsets -- respecting a conflicting point of view, empathizing with the speaker, understanding cultural perspective -- and methods of knowing when to ask the probing "why" and "how" questions to drive thinking deeper. Paulo Freire identified these critical discussions as essential to learning: where our ideas conflict, our potential to learn is greatest. Where two beams of light intersect, their brilliance is most intense. In developing the minds of the future, we add the lever of technology and potentially move the earth.

Deepening the Reflective Process

Enter Mrs. Renee Cheng's fifth grade class, where students engaged in a three-week project using poetry, social issue-driven literature, in-class Socratic book clubs, and online platforms to deepen their reflective process. Our goal was to create a mixture of classroom discussion and lab space combined with an online platform to invite multiple forms of student expression. Students amazed us with their ability to revisit, rethink, and deepen their thinking.

Our project began within metered verse, the wails of the blues, and the polyrhythms of bebop jazz captured by Langston Hughes. We began by singing a blues version of "Madam and Her Madam," rapping "Children's Rhyme," and dramatically reciting "A Dream Deferred." To better grasp historical distance, we traced the line of thought from a young African American (". . . I know I can't be president. . .") to the modern times of Barack Obama's inaugural speech referencing Martin Luther King's "dream," then back to Langston's "dream deferred." After that, we dove into a closer analysis of "Madam and Her Madam," a narrative of a maid mistreated by her employer. Students grappled with writing in first person from four different perspectives -- the maid, the Madam, the poet, and the modern reader -- and then used iPads to capture their metacognition of the process in Explain Everything screencasts. With Google Sites as a sharepoint, students posted their thinking, gave feedback for homework, and the dialogue continued the following day in class.

The Right Mix of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

The next phase of the project challenged students to a real-life practicum, a Skype interview with Australian poet Kevin Brophy at the University of Melbourne. To spark questioning, two of Brophy’s poems served as insight into his perspective. Through Google Docs, students brainstormed, edited, and refined their probing questions.

At 8:00 AM, we arranged arena seating around our projector screen. We laughed at the notion of us being in Brophy’s past, he in our future. Then one student, Omer, started with a bang:

OK, so a famous Israeli poet once said, "A man is a model of his own homeland." In what way is poetry affected by your homeland?

One student posed questions while the class collaborated on collective notes. Kevin was playful and laughed with each student, picking up on minuscule details in their appearance and mannerisms, and then, through a mixture of poems he recited to the class and anecdotes from his own life, he dove straight into life's heartiest matters -- nationalism and identity, estranged parents, global warming, child abuse, how to maintain inspiration and creativity, and this advice on finding direction in life: "You don't really choose what you become -- you just become what you are."

The whole room was moved by the acuity of this poet's thinking and his glaring honesty with the students. I wondered if we had pushed our fifth graders into issues too deep to digest, but, as defined by Aristotle, the right mix of ethos, pathos, and logos makes something unavoidably interesting. Over the next few days, we watched as scattered seeds germinated.

Slow, Vibrant Conversation

That night, students transcribed the interview on a collaborative document, embellishing details like "a few moments of dramatic silence went by," and identified the most meaningful parts. In class, these highlights became the central focus of silent, slow-motion Socratic dialogues using post-its and butcher paper. We teachers emphasized that reading and writing are just very slow conversations that allow one to encapsulate thoughts before sharing them. To explore different platforms of expression, we digitized these threads using, a Google App that serves as an interactive posting board. A line from one of Brophy’s poems, "panic is our companion," instigated a vibrant discussion. A student named Jonah explained:

Even when you're crying your eyes out, a bit of panic is with you. . . panic is kind of a second brain in your body, a second personality, always looking for what to worry about, what to be afraid of, what to panic about.

Slowing the discussion down, waiting for deep meaning, enabling students with multiple forms of expression, and using the digital platform to revisit themes brought out what we felt was authentic inquiry and reflection. While technology threaded through the project, it was never the focus but merely the tool, the vehicle to make learning more intense, more immediate, more flexible, more metacognitive, more integrative, more personal, and more fun!

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


One day late in the year, the headmaster said to me: Hey, I hear you're doing some clever things in your classroom to promote class discussion!

Clever, huh. Works for me, too, I thought.

Anyhow, I think "clever" means you've come up with a not-too-radical solution to something nagging you. Student disinterest and not deeply interacting with each other nags me. I really wanted my students to know they could talk during class--to talk about whatever was on tap that day, or something close to it. I wanted to interact and converse and debate and inform. And if they did that with me and each other, they'd get to hold the wiggly rubber chicken until somebody made an even better comment or asked a better question.

After almost a full school year, of course, there were certain folks who became upset, and way-too vocal themselves, that their kid didn't get the chicken chucked at them that day or week or at all. Sorry, mom. The opportunity to say something intelligent is a daily offering, and has been since the first week of school. When the chicken got retired early, I went back to the same toy section of my grocery store and bought a nine-inch long rubber lizard with sharp teeth and big eyes and bright green speckles and started flinging it around when good discussion items and questions and comments were offered up. The kids thought I was crazy. A rubber lizard? Compared to our wiggly plucked hero?

After a couple of days, Spike came to me privately and said the lizard was lame as hell, Todd. I told Spike if I snuck the wiggly plucked chicken back in that Principal Lurlene would kill me. Spike said he'd take a punch for me.

Anyhow, it worked, that little rubber chicken from the grocery store toy section. It did exactly what I'd hoped it would do...provoke class discussion with a sense of fun and moderate creepiness. The opportunity to get the chicken chucked at them electrified kids who would otherwise not be electrified in a history class. The whole idea was totally unique to American education, I'm pretty darn sure.

So now I have a new word: it's alektorophilia. It's Latin or Greek or French or whatever for people who love chickens. It's also my new word for those who think of clever ways to get a student's attention: alektorophiliacs. Isn't that ultimately what we do ... get their attention ... and hope they love and remember what they learn next?

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I gave them the rest of class off, which they like a lot. Everybody fans out and sits on the floor. I think when the pressure's off, they like to go somewhere below the teacher's eye level. That's what I think. Sometimes they don't want to go outside and play.

I'm sitting there grading tests and listening to thirteen and fourteen year olds help each other with work for other teachers, with extreme sincerity, while they have no idea the educator in the room can grade tests and spy on them at the same time while he's also listening to the Allman Brothers Band "Gold" disc two. Listen to this: for k. Dumb head

My elbow hurts

If you turn it in late she'll take off seventy points

I never knew that

It's easy...but hard to understand. Does that make sense?

I rush through things

I don't ever remember getting that assignment

That's so lame. You can do better. You're better than that

Why is that?

You can do this

Principal Lurlene won't let you freakin' do all

Those are things they say to each other in the classroom, quietly, with real kindness in their voices. It sort of thrills my heart. Then somebody grabs one of the school yearbooks and they start going through that thing:

All the lower school kids are mean

I hate her

All my middle school teachers are gone

I talked to him the other day. He told me he was dead

She talks to me on Facebook

He has changed so much

When he came to my birthday party he tried to pull the refrigerator apart

Everybody cool was on that bus

Oh, look...there's memories!

That's kind of creepy

She was so annoying

Her baby sister is so cute

I hate him

He's such a queer

She's so nice

Monica was so mean to me

He like curls up in a little ball on the floor and pulls everybody's backpacks on top of him because it was thundering real loud outside

Remember when everybody was freaking out?

I just can't get over's so weird

She's the one that turned around and yelled at us that we need to stop cussing

She looks really pretty now. She was a toad for soooo long

Her mother's a toad, too. And she smokes like a chimney

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