This year I am participating in a book group for parents at my kids’ school. Instead of reading popular parent fare, How Children Succeed, or Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, we are tackling Plato’s Republic, one book at a time. Twelve parents, once a week, for two hours. I don’t remember ever reading Republic, but I am grateful to be experiencing the book now, as a more fully actualized learner, because I see in every section a connection to modern life.
Maybe the most surprising connection between Republic and contemporary America is its discussion of education. If you’re like me, you might think that a book written more than 2,300 years ago would be concerned with how to share a city’s one papyrus scroll among all the children who need to learn to read, or deciding on the scope and sequence of introducing the Greek gods into the curriculum. In fact, Plato’s Republic deals with issues that are surprisingly contemporary: Who deserves an education, and what kind? What are the “right” subjects to teach? And what role do the arts play in learning?
Because there are so many parallels between Plato’s writing and the issues we wrestle with in education today, our group sometimes forgets to leave our 21st-century eyes behind and evaluate Plato’s work in the proper historical context. One passage from Book II in particular really irked me. Plato, through the character of Socrates in the book, explains that to maintain the integrity of his educational philosophy, it would be necessary to control the exposure students had to certain pieces of literature. At one point, Socrates asks, “Then shall we carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories, told by just anyone, and to take beliefs into their souls that are for the most part opposite to the ones we think they should hold when they are grown up?” When his companions say, “We certainly won’t,” Socrates replies, “Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.”
When our group reviewed that section of Book II, I practically shouted, “Supervise the storytellers? Is he kidding? That’s censorship! He’s a control freak!” Turns out, not everyone was as incensed as me. Turns out, some parents in the group agreed that adults are responsible for “grooming” literature to make sure it reflects family values. Turns out that not everyone had read Milton Meltzer’s brilliant essay about writing history for young people called “If the Fish Stinks…” Turns out there are people who think Junie B. Jones encourages children to behave badly.
The conversation had turned hot, and overcome by the heat, I stopped listening.
Instead, I went inside my head, constructing an argument that was calm but persuasive, holding on to my ideas while I waited for another turn to talk, not allowing any other conversation to break through the audio-barrier I had created, one step removed from having my fingers in my ears and chanting, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you.”
Suddenly I realized that I was having a teachable moment. What our group needed to do was take a break and write about what we were thinking, to get it all down on paper. I was socially savvy enough not to actually make the situation into a teachable moment, but later, I continued to think about the value of writing during a discussion. I came up with five reasons why it’s a smart idea, especially when a conversation heats up.
Reason No. 1 to write when the talk gets hot: You offer a time to chill out.
During an intense conversation, everyone has an idea and wants to get his or her two cents in. Once an idea bubbles up, there’s no way to contain it. It has to get out. Without a place to let the idea overflow, it becomes a distraction, and any possibility of staying engaged in the conversation goes away. You can tell the idea pot is boiling over when you see lots of hands frantically waving in the air, when you hear kids interrupting each other, when side conversations pop up among classmates who just need someone to listen right now while the idea is white hot.
Action: Give students a three-minute pause to write. Let them capture the ideas that are ricocheting around their neural pathways. This is often as satisfying as talking out loud.
Reason No. 2 to write when the talk gets hot: You provide a place to park a runaway idea.
How many times have you observed a discussion in which a student has been (patiently or otherwise) waiting to talk, only to exclaim, “I forgot what I wanted to say!” when it’s finally her turn? In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that when humans are thinking hard, they have one big observable physical response—their pupils dilate. A person who is fully engaged in a cognitive task, according to Kahneman, “may become effectively blind,” so absorbed in the task that she loses track of everything happening around her.
Allowing students time to record what’s on their minds not only has a calming effect but acts as a placeholder. The ideas are now recorded for posterity, and the writer can relax and start listening to the conversation again, secure in the knowledge that what she was thinking won’t get forgotten in the conversational shuffle.
At the height of my book group’s conversation about “supervising the storytellers,” I shut down, deaf, if not blind, to what everyone else was saying. I didn’t want to lose the thread of my argument, and I worried that if I continued listening, I would. A three-minute writing pause would have helped.
Action: Identify beliefs. In my Plato group, I assumed that all the other parents at our progressive school would reject Socrates’ suggestion that the “guardians” control what children read. I was wrong, and I was blindsided when someone said, “I think parents and teachers should make sure that children read lots of stories with strong moral themes, especially when they’re young.” If I had taken time to write down the beliefs I was bringing to our discussion—for instance, that sanitizing children’s literature was a bad idea—I would have been more thoughtful about the fact that some people might not agree, and if they didn’t, how I could respond. In our three-minute writing pause during the discussion, I could have taken a look at the assumptions I wrote down before talking, and reflect on what was reinforcing or challenging my existing beliefs. Primed to consider the “big ideas,” my response might have been tactful rather than reactionary.
My fifth graders used to read Tuck Everlasting and discuss the book in a series of literature circles. The big question in this story is, Would it be desirable to live forever? The book offered a perfect opportunity to teach my kids to examine their beliefs. Before we started reading, I asked the class who thought living forever would be desirable and who was less enthused. I encouraged everyone to hold this assumption about immortality at the front of their minds as they talked and listened to their peers discuss each section we read, keeping track in post-literature-circle reading logs of whether their beliefs were changing.
Examining assumptions works with nonfiction texts, too. During a science unit on insects, my students read an article in Ranger Rick magazine that asked readers to consider whether one species of endangered animals deserved more protection than others. Before we read the article, I asked the class if they would rather do a fundraiser to save the pandas or the ground beetle. The answer, I explained, revealed beliefs readers bring to the article about the worthiness of a creature’s right to be protected.
In your classroom, before starting a conversation about reading, consider asking students to write down two beliefs they’re bringing to the talk. Noticing and naming our beliefs takes some practice, but once students learn to identify their biases, they are more skilled at making a conversation get “hot” or at anticipating when a topic might excite, irritate, or challenge them.
Reason No. 3 to write when the talk gets hot: You invite everyone’s voice.
Whether a passionate conversation is respectfully contained or mimics the Call on me, call on me!, frantic hand-waving, impolite interrupting, eruptive-side-conversation scenario described above, there will be quiet children with plenty to say who won’t get heard. These students are more likely to contribute to a discussion if they have a nonverbal option for warm-up, a place to rehearse what they want to say before they say it. Teachers often require students to put ideas in writing before discussing a book they’ve read, because having a piece of paper in front of you offers a measure of confidence, especially if you want to introduce a sensitive or unorthodox topic. Take the same approach and apply it during a meaty discussion.
Action: Pause during a discussion and ask students to write for three minutes about a new idea, an idea they’re resisting, a question, a connection. Track the conversational turns once the talk resumes. Chances are, different hands will be raised, new voices will be heard.
Reason No. 4 to write when the talk gets hot: Writing clarifies thinking.
Joan Didion put it this way: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” In the spirit of this article, we might add to Didion’s list, “I write to find out what I think about what I’m hearing.” In my Plato group, when the conversation got hot around the idea of “supervising the storytellers,” I didn’t have the advantage of taking a three-minute writing pause. Later, though, I did send an email to our group’s host apologizing if I came on too strong during the discussion. The note probably took about three minutes to write, and in the course of my apology, I was suddenly writing about censorship and white privilege. White privilege? I hadn’t seen that coming, but there it was.
Action: After students have had three minutes to write, ask them to highlight one word, phrase, or sentence that surprised them when it went down on paper. Trust the process. Model it yourself. If a student says that nothing she wrote surprised her, ask her to highlight her favorite word, phrase, or sentence. Take turns reading the highlighted sections. Does the group hear a pattern? Could students arrange themselves in a particular reading order so that when read aloud, the words, phrases, and sentences created a kind of found poem? (For more on this idea, check out Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension by Jeff Wilhelm. In chapter 9, he writes about using excerpts of students’ writing to create a choral montage.)
Reason No. 5 to write when the talk gets hot: You learn things you cannot otherwise know.
Whether a teacher is observing, facilitating, or participating in a discussion, she is often trying to keep track of who’s engaged, what’s being said, how the conversation evolves and influences students’ thinking. Giving students a three-minute writing pause means the teacher now has something to collect as evidence of students’ engagement and growth. In Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers, Tom Romano explains the value in having students reflect on their learning. He writes, “I urge you to also have students include a personal reflection about that work. It will particularize your evaluation, make you privy to students’ behind-the-scenes thinking, attitudes, and processes that will further your understanding of their work. These reflections usually teach me things I cannot otherwise know.” Although a teacher might not always want to collect the writing generated during a three-minute writing pause, it is a useful option for assessing students’ learning.
Action: Decide when collecting students’ three-minute writing would add value to the multiple measures you use to monitor their learning. Will you attach a grade to their writing, give points for participation, or leave the writing “unmeasured” but responded to? Do you want to collect everyone’s three-minute writings every time? Do you want to invite students to turn in their three-minute writings if they’re looking for another set of eyes to respond to their ideas? And if you give students a choice of handing in their writing, does it always have to be you who reads what they wrote? Could students have the option of giving their writing to a peer for no-stakes feedback?
For now, I’m not going to interrupt a parent book group discussion with the “three-minute pause” proposal, but I am going to try the approach with teachers when the conversation gets hot. It would have been handy last semester during a children’s literature class I was teaching. We had all read Frog and Toad Together, a crown jewel in the world of early reader chapter books, in my opinion. When we started to talk about the book, a young woman remarked, “You know, I just don’t get it. Amphibians wearing clothes? And what’s with their friendship? Are we supposed to think they’re gay? Should this book even be in schools?”
Yes, a writing pause would have been a welcome refreshment to many people in the room that day.