Throughout my career, I aggressively tried to move students away from the term “smart” as a way to name their academic identity – to no avail. It is the term they consistently use to describe themselves, so I decided to approach it from a new angle - to define “smart” – to make it visible and then name when and where “smart” happened in our classroom. I wanted to create a classroom that allowed students to publicly experience academic success.
I started by narrowing the focus of what we would define, and I settled on a skill set that I felt would transfer to other classes and beyond the school doors: the ability to participate in a discussion. We began the process of defining the characteristics of an effective discussion. We watched discussions online (book clubs and college seminars), and my students visited other classes during our class period to observe discussions. Then we shared observations and looked for patterns across our notes and named what it looks and sounds like to be involved in an effective discussion. We defined “smart” as it relates to discussion:
- People listen to each other.
- Everyone is willing to contribute.
- Don’t dominate; everyone needs a chance.
- Support opinions with evidence.
- Respect what is said even if you disagree with it.
- Share opinions, asks questions, makes connections, and analyzes author’s craft
- Work for dialogue (not talk):
- Build on each other’s comments
- Work toward discovery of new ideas
We began reading and annotating short stories in preparation for our discussions. The success of our discussion would be measured by whether we left class with a new understanding of the text. We referred to this as deep meaning - where they stopped discussing the surface of the subject/text (who, what, where, when, and how) and moved to “why” – moving beyond what the author says to what the author means. The skill set we identified above became our process to get to deep meaning.
One day during discussion, I realized “it” was happening. We were having meaningful, thoughtful dialogue; I was worried they weren’t seeing it so out of nowhere I yelled “freeze frame!” A strategy was born! The entire class froze. I ran to the white board and mapped what I could remember about how the comments built to the point where I had stopped them. I named exactly what I heard and who said it to make visible how the collaborative building of ideas was leading us to deep meaning.
Naming contradicted advice I was given early in my career where naming a student publically might make them the object of teacher-pet teasing. Students’ names were used, their contributions were named and analyzed publicly, and they were all encouraged to replicate the process they had just seen and heard as we continued our discussion. Creating knowledge became visible, and when it is visible, it can be replicated and controlled. A student knows what they have done during the discussion and what they still need to do in order to be more successful.
In Emma’s end-of-the-year portfolio, she reflects on what she remembers as being her most memorable discussion. Her comments illustrate the visual nature of naming academic thinking:
We knew that we were getting close to dialogue because Mrs. Cleland was webbing on the white board (she tends to start webbing when we get to dialogue; this is a habit that she picked up over the year). Dialogue happened when we started adding to each other’s ideas and getting closer to the deeper meaning that way. We could see where it happened in the web. It was exciting.
Eventually, the students would call their own freeze frames and name what they saw. We found that an entire class discussion made it impossible for everyone to experience the process and to meet personal discussion goals, so we moved to an inner/outer circle structure. I created a discussion observation chart for the outer circle to record their observations through our discussion criteria lens. Everyone in the class was actively involved in our meaning-making process.
When visitors came to our class, students invited them to use the strategy if they needed explanation of what was happening or if they saw a process they wanted to share with the class. One story I will always remember happened when I told my students that visitors from an area high school were coming to observe our freeze frame technique so they could use it in their classrooms. One student said “Let’s use a story we have already discussed so we look really smart.” Another replied “Mrs. Cleland, why don’t you give us the hardest story you can find so we can really blow them away?” I knew their academic identities were moving beyond the fragile stage; they knew the process to put into place to create meaning of difficult text, and they were ready to use that process in a public forum.
The importance of “naming” and freeze frame as a strategy to nurture academic identity is illustrated in these student reflections:
Entry #1: In our class a moment when I felt smart in class was when we were having a discussion and I said something. During the freeze frame you told the whole class that it was a really good observation and that we built a dialogue out of what I started. When that happened I felt better about myself and I felt smart in the way where I was actually getting somewhere in the discussion we were having.
Entry #2: The first time I really helped the class to enter into the deeper meaning of the text was a day that I remember. The fact that you pointed it out not only to me but to the whole class made me feel even smarter. The fact that I can really understand the things we read for a deeper meaning just makes me feel like I am more than just a simple student. I can get the deeper meaning and really understand it. Not only do I use this in this class but I use this all the time which makes me feel smart all the time.
A final component in this naming process is critical reflection – reflecting on behaviors through our defined lens (in this case, our Characteristics of an Effective Discussion).
- Which of the characteristics was your strength today? Give a specific example.
- Name someone who clearly demonstrated one of the characteristics in today's discussion. Specifically, what did he/she do that allowed them to demonstrate this characteristic?
- Which of the characteristics will you work on in tomorrow's discussion? Where could you have demonstrated this characteristic in today's discussion?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.