Silent Conversing

Silent Conversing is a useful method for creating debate and discussion in the classroom without also creating argument and chaos. Unlike many of the other techniques discussed in the Resource Index, Silent Conversing works best after the reading assignment or research project has been completed. This is because Silent Conversing relies on students to make an informed opinion about a given prompt that is either from or closely related to the reading the students have just completed. The given prompts in this method take the form of solitary quotes on the top of a piece of paper. These quotes should express a clear and concise opinion on a subject or topic, and not merely state a basic, unarguable fact. For an example, I have used a quote from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond:

“It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities” (Diamond 25).

This quote works well as a prompt for Silent Conversing because it discusses some controversial issues and touches at some deeper themes from the reading. An instructor can give each student a different prompt or an identical one, but each student starts the exercise holding a piece of paper with only one quote printed on it. Each student then writes a brief response to the prompt they are given, right below the prompt on that same sheet of paper. Students can agree, disagree, or simply summarize the points that they think the author of the prompt is trying to make. Then they pass that paper to the left. The student to the left then has the choice to either also respond to the prompt or to reply to the response of the original student, indicating their decision with a directive arrow. After the second student is done, they pass that paper to the left, and the cycle repeats until the given time limit is reached (anywhere from five to 20 minutes). At no time is the student required to sign his or her response, as anonymity of reflection is a large part of what makes this exercise work. After the time limit is reached, the prompts are returned to the students that they start with, and now the seeds of an informed, energized, and grounded discussion have been planted. As an instructor, be sure to monitor emotional safety in this exercise, for while anonymity is freeing when it comes to thought and reflection, it can also be seen as authorization to write harshly and critically. For an example of this, please see The Internet.

Think Write Prompts

A major challenge for teachers is getting students to write freely, without getting bogged down and preoccupied with rote feedback and diffuse commentary on memorized material. Think Write prompts allow students to go deeper with their thinking by focusing on self-reflection and prior knowledge instead of on the material. A Think Write prompt is deceptively simple. It is exploratory and open-ended. It can take as long as you like, from one minute to a half hour. It can be performed during discussion or as a warmup at the beginning of class. It should never be graded, but only exist in order for the student to get an understanding of his or her own learning. It can be silent exercise, stimulus for an essay assignment, or an enhancement for group discussion. Here are a few examples of Think Write prompts:

“For the next three minutes, write the things you know, the things you think you know, that the things you’d like to learn more about cellular reproduction.”

‘When the author says, “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry,” what do you think he’s talking about?’

“I’ve had a picture of a cookbook on the wall from the very beginning of this unit on transcription and translation. Why do you think that is?”

In addition to Think Write prompts, there are also Write Right prompts, which encourage students to make a concrete judgement on what they think is correct or what they see is most important about a subject or idea. Write Right prompts are often less open-ended than Think Write prompts, but they are similar in their spontaneity and universal application to warmups, essays, and group discussions. Instead of only allowing students to reflect on their own understanding, Write Right prompts are more appropriate for teachers to use in order to gauge class understanding of materials, and they should therefore be given out as assignments to be turned in and graded. Here are some examples of Write Right prompts:

“What do you think are the three most important arguments made in this article?”

“How are transcription and translation alike? How are they different? Give four specific examples.”

“If you were giving an exam on the entire process of cellular evolution, what three questions would you put on the test?”

While Write Right prompts are bit more closed-off and focused than Think Write prompts, both techniques look to accomplish the same goal—to get students’ brains off of the material and into their own heads, in order to see what they have learned, how they have learned it, and what personal connections they have made with it.

Proposition/Support Outlines

Proposition/Support Outlines work in a variety of writing contexts, but are especially effective for position papers—essays that clearly present, support, call attention to a specific opinion, viewpoint, or idea. Position papers are widely used examples of persuasive writing, and commonly appear on final exams and standardized tests where students are directed to respond to a scientific hypothesis or literary prompt. To begin, start with a statement of fact. For example, “The amount of fish in the ocean is being depleted.” A fact can be proven or disproven, while an opinion (“I believe that…”) cannot. Now, make this statement of fact into a proposition by introducing an opinion or follow-up statement that requires argument supported by facts. Our proposition is now “The amount of fish in the ocean is being depleted because current fishing methods are unsustainable.” The outline below illustrates five methods of support for this proposition—facts, statistics, examples, expert authority, and logic/reasoning. An example of each is provided using information from Overfishing.org:

Like Dialogical Writing/Reading, this exercise can be done in reverse by having students deconstruct a piece of writing to identify the author’s point of view and the methods used for supporting it.

I like Proposition/Support Outlines because it forces students to think critically about how they approach reading and writing. This exercise should encourage questioning like “What is the author trying to say?” “How well-founded are the author’s arguments?” “Does the reasoning match the facts?” and “What are whole in the logic of the arguments?” This sort of critical examination of pieces of writing will allow students to better state and defend their own opinions, while discerning the supported from the unfounded in the over-abundance of propositions made in the Information Age.

Interviewing the Author

Interviewing the Author is an activity designed for gleaning the original purpose of the author in order to better access a piece of writing. In this exercise, students work in groups of 3-6, with one student acting as the author of the piece and the remaining students taking the role of professional interviewers (for a TV spot, radio talk show, newspaper article, ect.). The goal of the students interviewing the “author” should be to unpack the author’s main purpose, clarify difficult language, and create an interesting dialogue for the audience to listen to and understand. The challenge of this exercise, then, is two-fold: one, for the student to understand the reading enough to “become the author,” and two, for the remaining students to create questions that both effective and entertaining. These questions often look like “What do you mean by that…?” and “Let me see if I get what you’re saying. You’re saying that…” but can be in any form the interviewers choose.

I liked the idea behind Interviewing the Author. The plan of playing the primary source and then seeing the secondary spectators and observers pick the primary views and opinions apart was like seeing the processes behind a research paper come to life — delivery of information and collection of knowledge, then reconstruction rephrasing, and application. But I felt the activity itself lacked a certain amount of application, as it felt frozen and a bit disconnected as each group shared out. Perhaps if we had gone with your first thought ofall being McCormicks, taking five minutes to prepare a question and five more minutes to prepare ourselves to answer, the exercise would have felt more universal, meaning, and lasting. I feel comfortable approaching academic language, as I feel abel to contextualize it to the point of understanding it. This exercise helped me better understand the text, but it did not inspire me to revisit it.

Dialogical Writing/Reading

Dialogical Writing, or “Chaining,” is a technique that uses a series of statements clarified by prompts in order to generate text that flows, has clear voice, and is direct in focus. To perform this exercise, first divide a sheet of paper into two columns: “Statement” and “Prompt.” In the Statement column, make a clear, factual statement. Across from this statement, under Prompt, create a prompt that will elaborate, restate, extend or enhance this initial statement. (NOTE: The task of creating prompts appears quite often in these resources, and for good reason, as good questions always lie at the heart of good writing.) Now create a second statement to address this first prompt. Continue making this chain until you, acting now as both author and audience, feel that the point has been made. I have provided an example below. I have connected statements and prompts with red arrows to show the flow of “dialogue.”

Now I take all the statements, tweak them a bit, combine them, and get this:

Bees are important pollinators. They pollinate almost one-third of the world’s crops, which means that one out of every three bites a person takes is directly due to pollination by bees. Although it is a common misconception that commodities like meat do not require pollination, meat comes from cows, and cows eat alfalfa, and alfalfa requires bees in order to propagate and survive. While wind and other animals can aid in pollination, bees are the most necessary pollinators because they are the only animal that gets all of their required nutrients exclusively from flowers. Bees get their proteins from a mixture of flower pollen they make called “bee bread,” so while other animals need meat or vegetables to get protein, bees need only flowers to live. Bees are so necessary that without them, there would be a massive decline in crops and flowering plants. Coffee, chocolate, and almost all fruits would disappear from grocery stores. Unfortunately, overuse of pesticides and a lack of variety of flower pollen on farms may lead to the extinction of many species of bees, which could result in the realization of this bleak reality.

This piece of writing could have come off as stiff and unaccessible, but now it reads more openly and with a tighter, more direct flow. Also, the writing is formulated much easier using this method because it originates as simple, direct dialogue instead of halted, elevated prose. This same exercise can be performed backwards, with a piece of writing being dialogically dissected in order to access the author’s meaning and supporting arguments. For example, take these two paragraphs from the book, Spatial Hearing: The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localization by Jens Blauert (1997):

Now, spatial hearing and psychophysics are two things I admittedly know nothing about, but by using dialogical reading on this piece I can better understand what the author is trying to say: