This post is written by NCTE member, Lauren Petri.
I have not spoken for almost ten entire minutes in my classroom, and it is both uncomfortable and humbling. They don’t need me today. My seventh hour is participating in their third Philosophical Chairs Debate, and buried underneath my anxiety is a well of pride bubbling over as my students create a deliberative discussion about the prosecution of child soldiers. While I certainly am not the facilitator of this conversation, I can see my thumbprints in their words. More specifically, I can hear the insight and language I gained in Teaching Deliberatively: Writing and Civic Literacy, a 2015 summer graduate class offered through the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa Writing Project, becoming part of my students’ academic and interpersonal interactions.
Many of my students are not tactful. They’re eighth graders and they’re nearly always ready to battle with their words. Their worlds revolve around hallway exchanges and social media sparring. When I started to delve into classroom discussions, I was abruptly met with an uphill battle. My students had plenty of disagreements, but few had the vocabulary to sort through their conflicts productively. So, I started small. I worked with one of my classes to create a list of “sentence starters” to use when in a discussion that involved conflict. We practiced, and practiced, and got better each week. A classroom initially fraught with haphazard comments slowly became one where words were chosen with care and purposeful thought. I began to trust them, and as their positive experiences in my classroom piled up, they began to trust me.
Following Teaching Deliberatively last summer, I was adamant that my classroom would nurture a climate of conversation. As I anxiously anticipated my first year of teaching, I envisioned lively discussions and intrinsically motivated students. However, that is not quite what reality placed in my lap. I was, and still am some days, frustrated with the lack of buy-in from my students. Developing those sentence starters with my class was a huge step toward creating a community of students who are willing to take risks. When my students became more willing to take academic risks, I started to see growth.
In the process of trying to create learners, I can easily forget that I am one as well. In the days following the Teaching Deliberatively course, I realized that I needed to be part of a community of learners if I ever hoped to create one. Follow-up sessions with other cohort members helped. The time I spent engaging in civic discourse with colleagues renewed my own sense of curiosity. So, instead of bulldozing through content, I always stop to ask my students what they think of a particular lesson or activity. Their input has become an essential component of my daily planning. They know that whether the lesson goes without a hitch or flops, we’ll discuss it together. I ask for honesty, and they are experts at being honest with me. We craft the kind of language we need to let us communicate in a way that propels us forward, and I am certain that I am a better teacher because of it.
Lauren Petri is a first year middle school Language Arts teacher in Des Moines, and is a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa.