Look Who’s Talking: Teaching Power and Responsibility Through Classroom Interactions

Allison Cook and Dr. Orit Kent

"This school is not a democracy." How many of us have heard that line from a teacher or school administrator during our time as a student? Whether they use an authoritative, tongue-in-cheek or exasperated tone, adults in school find themselves driven to assert their authority from time to time by disabusing students of the notion that “majority rules” in school.

Schools are not democracies, but they are one of the most important training grounds for democracy. As powerful socialization mechanisms of society, schools fundamentally shape what students come to understand about power and responsibility. The hidden curriculum of school—the unwritten and unintended lessons students learn in school—often teaches kids that they have little power except through misbehavior, or, in some schools, that they have the power but little responsibility to others or their learning.

Lifelong lessons on the rules and skills of power have less to do with civics curricula and more to do with the lived relationships negotiated day in and day out among the elemental commonplaces of teaching and learning: the students, teachers, content and context. How students learn on a daily basis will shape the attitudes and skills students develop regarding their own power and responsibility vis-à-vis their peers, authority figures and their environment even more than what they learn in any particular content area.

If a school is serious about imparting messages and skills of power to build an engaged and responsible citizenry, it must look to its own patterns of pedagogy that deeply shape students’ interactions with others. How are students taught to interact with authority, one another and the content they are studying? Who has the power—and the skill—in the classroom to shape an agenda, draw out or silence other people’s voices, ask questions, and support and challenge ideas? Do students learn to use their skills to make room for each other’s voices, to collaborate, compromise and build understanding together in their day-to-day learning, or are these activities left mainly to the authority of the teacher?

Pedagogy of Partnership, a Jewish method of teaching and learning, provides a framework through which we can uncover and reshape the hidden curriculum into intentional and life-giving lessons for responsibly engaging in a democratic society. Let’s take a look inside a couple of classrooms.

In a seventh grade classroom sits Jason, a pleasant but quiet young person who floats through his classes under the radar of his teacher and peers alike. Since he never speaks up without being called on, and since he is never a behavior problem, Jason draws no attention to himself. In full class lessons and discussions, no one knows what Jason may be thinking or if he has questions or ideas about the subject matter. Days can go by without Jason’s voice influencing the learning in the classroom.

In contrast to Jason, Liora yearns to express herself and enjoys the spotlight. Whenever possible, Liora will make a comment, ask a question, or fill fleeting classroom silences with a loud reference to an inside joke that will set her gang of friends into a fit of giggles while leaving others behind in confusion. Liora takes up a lot of time in the class, and the teacher often finds herself inadvertently negotiating with her to win back the classroom agenda.

While Jason and Liora embody very different classroom personalities, what they have in common is that they have not yet learned to take responsibility for their own power in their learning context. Jason has learned that his voice is not necessary for his own learning or that of his peers. Further, his peers have internalized this message; it would not occur to them to notice or care that Jason hasn’t participated, nor do they understand their own potential power to invite their friend’s ideas into the conversation. Liora, by contrast, has learned that her voice has the power to bring her attention from her teacher and her peers and that she likewise has the power to shape the class’ very content and flow. While her desire is not to sabotage the proceedings, she nevertheless wields her influence without much regard for the teacher, the subject matter, or the academic and social needs of her peers.

Jason and Liora’s teacher decides it is time to shift the dynamics of the classroom. She wants to do a better job of balancing the voices in the room and empowering all of her students to discover their voices and to take responsibility for their voices for the sake of everyone’s learning. The shift she wants to make will take real work and explicit teaching. It will require structuring the classroom discourse and teaching her students specific skills and language for fair and productive learning conversations.

Through the tools and frameworks of the Pedagogy of Partnership, the teacher begins to reduce the amount of time students vie for, or avoid, air-time on the big stage of the full group. She introduces the idea of havruta or paired learning as a training ground for students to practice talking and listening to one another with accountability and without an audience from peers or the constant presence of the authority of a teacher. Students are now in charge of making sure that their conversations are balanced, that each person shares their thinking and helps to draw out their partner’s.

Students take turns playing the role of “listener” and “articulator.” The teacher introduces specific phrases that she assigns all students to use to draw out one another’s voices and to deepen their understanding of the content. Students who may not be otherwise inclined learn to use phrases such as “Tell me more about what you mean.” “I think X. What do you think?” “Can you say that in a different way, or give an example?” Students learn that “attentive silence” is not the absence of speech but an intentional move of listening and taking responsibility for evenly distributing power among learning partners. The teacher holds students accountable for understanding not only the content but also the ideas of their peers. As students practice in pairs, they begin to use these new ways of talking and interacting in their full group as well. The rules have changed, and Jason, Liora and their classmates have learned some new lessons.

Jason learns that he has much to contribute to the development of the ideas in the classroom. The new structures and rules of conversation give him a much easier way to plug in. He is surprised and pleased that his peers appreciate what he has to say, and in the new norms of the full-group discussion they often publicly credit him with an idea or question that caused them to understand the content differently. Now, even in the full class context, Jason is a frequent contributor; he feels more prepared to raise his hand, having had the opportunity to work through and try out his ideas in a more intimate context.

Liora learns that the currency for attracting attention has been converted. Whereas before she could dominate the classroom through performing for her peers, she now finds herself having fewer opportunities to draw on her old patterns because of the groupings and protocols the teacher has put in place. She is learning that she can get attention by listening well and not just by speaking, and while it felt annoying at first, she is surprised to discover that being paired with a classmate who does not share her inside jokes can be refreshing. The pressure to perform is off. Instead of taking every opportunity to use her voice to overpower the class, she recognizes that her participation is being moderated not only by the teacher but her peers, who call on one another to share ideas with consideration for who has and has not had a chance to speak. The seventh grade cohort is emerging with new skills and understanding about the power of individual voices and the responsibility they each have in building their learning environment.

Down the hall, fourth graders are also learning lessons about their own power. A student named Yoni sighs as he enters into his fourth grade Chumash class. He wishes he could just skip the class because he is so bad at it. He has been struggling academically and socially as long as he can remember and having to face these challenges with the added burden of a Hebrew language text feels too much to bear sometimes. His peers try to hide their eye-rolling when the teacher assigns him to their group, and he feels embarrassed about what little he has to contribute to “cracking the code” of the text or answering the questions on the worksheet. His classmates don’t listen to him anyway, he thinks.

Over the next Chumash unit on the story of Yosef, Yoni notices that class begins to feel different. His teacher has taken some time out of the normal routines of working on the Hebrew text to introduce what she calls the partnership practice of “wondering” about the text. Now instead of just cracking the code and answering questions, his teacher enthusiastically prompts the students to share anything they notice about the text and invites the students to ask as many of their own questions as they want about it. They are practicing using prompts such as, “I notice…” and “I wonder….” Then, they start to think about the list of questions they have generated to identify which questions are particularly “juicy” that the students—not the teacher—most want think about together.

Yoni notices a lot of things about the text, particularly because it takes him a long time to work through it. He also realizes he has a lot of questions about the story that his teacher and his classmates consider to be interesting. Together, with Yoni’s help, the class picks a juicy question to pursue: Why didn’t Yosef reveal his identity to his brothers right away?

Through havruta time and full-class discussions, the fourth graders work through their answers. Their teacher teaches them that any answer they suggest must be supported by evidence from the text, and students practice using the phrase “Where’s the evidence?” to hold one another accountable to their textual partner. Yoni’s high-performing classmates have ideas about why Yosef didn’t immediately reveal himself to his brothers.

But Yoni sees something different in the text, something that the mefarshim (classical Jewish commentators) expound upon but that his classmates have not yet discovered. His classmates take notice of this idea and as a result, of Yoni too. Suddenly, the entire class begins rereading the text with Yoni’s idea in mind, building textual support for this particular interpretation. Yoni’s esteem rises in the eyes of his peers; it is clear to everyone that he has fundamentally influenced the class’ learning. The teacher’s decision to empower students to design a significant piece of the learning agenda with their own wondering and to give students the voice and tools to do this has shifted the power dynamics of the classroom—not only from teacher to students, but from high status students to lower status students. The students have learned new lessons about their own power and abilities and that of their peers.

School is not a democracy, but it is the place where students learn lessons of equal opportunity and the role they play in ensuring this opportunity for themselves and others. They learn lessons about the power of the individual voice to contribute or to detract from the common good and the need for listening as well as for speaking. It is the place where students practice having ideas and rehearse the give and take of negotiating with others to shape an agenda and execute it in collaboration. School is the place where all students—not just those with particular personalities or parents—can learn and practice an overt curriculum of skills and attitudes that equip them to engage with others not only in learning but also as responsible participants in our communities and our democracy.

What educators can do to distribute power and responsibility to all students:

  • Give every student more time to talk, to talk with one another, and time without the authority figure of the teacher mediating and evaluating—but give them the tools to talk productively.
  • Give students protocols and routines that give each individual student a time, role and opportunity to contribute and hold them accountable for their contributions.
  • Make sure classroom discourse is not limited to the “big stage” of the full group. Students need time to practice without feeling like they are in front of a big audience.
  • Teach students the words they can use with each other to explore, probe and refine ideas together productively.
  • Make sure students get to ask and pursue some of their own questions and wonderings, not just the teacher’s questions or the curriculum’s, so that students understand that they too are responsible for the agenda and for using criteria for identifying and pursuing questions worthy of study.
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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019