The diversity of experience around a 10th
-grade English Harkness table announced itself on a morning last spring when members of the class sang “Happy Birthday” to a classmate in no fewer than seven languages! What a warm way to begin class, one that set a tone that underscored a serious discussion about an Ibo village in Nigeria--the novel Things Fall Apart
As a teacher, I think about atmosphere and how to coax students to tap into their varied experiences and perspectives so that they add to our shared conversations about texts and writing. Diversity around the Harkness table of course includes gender, ethnicity, and all the other forms of identity, but diversity in a Harkness classroom also takes the form of those who speak frequently and those who are quiet. Both students are necessary for rich conversation, and it is my job to structure class so that all students think, write, and communicate their ideas to each other. Can a quiet student be comfortable in a Harkness classroom? Absolutely.
The Harkness table in my classroom has tides of clamor and quiet, and this is by design. Sometimes we read a text out loud, taking turns. Other times, I ask a question to get the ball rolling, and students begin to process their ideas verbally. There are other times when I ask students to refrain from speaking, to take time to think and write before discussion proceeds. After this, I might ask each person to read a sentence or two from their writing. Some students (and adults!) are simply more comfortable speaking from a “script” rather than producing thoughts on the spot.
Think time has many variations. Rather than have a whole group discussion at first, I use an old favorite from the teacher toolbox: think-pair-share. Students jot down their thoughts, turn to someone next to them, and either read or paraphrase their writing. This pair might report back to the larger group, which then responds to the pair. Ideas can start zinging around like a pinball, and the important thing is that the quiet student has articulated his or her idea either to a partner or to the larger group. Think-pair-share validates students who thrive in one-on-one interactions.
There are also times when my classroom is noisy with the clicking of laptop keys--a digital Harkness discussion. Either on a Google doc or more frequently in a discussion on Haiku, our learning management software, students write a response to a prompt, read others’ responses, and then write a comment or two about others’ ideas. The benefits of this type of discussion are many: reflective time, crafting a written statement, experiencing the diversity of approaches to answering a question. I will sometimes follow this up by asking students to comment verbally upon each other’s ideas in the digital Harkness.
While Harkness is not likely to change a student’s innate traits, quiet students learn the same kinds of skills around the Harkness table as their peers and can become experienced contributors. Their often thoroughly formulated ideas add value to the conversation, and they are generally deep thinkers and terrific listeners. Varying the format of Harkness discussions allows these students to successfully participate in ways that best suit their personalities.
When I plan for class, I am grateful that I know my students well, something that all teachers at Pacific Ridge can claim. We create learning opportunities, Harkness discussions among them, that will bring out the best in each of our students.