Debriefing, Part Three: Supporting Equity

Great!  So...you've got those kids talking and processing now.  You've worked to focus the discussion on your social or conceptual goals, and you've organized the type of debrief so that it will fit your time frame.  A couple of kids say things that you hoped and thought they would say, and one or two say things that completely blow you away.  You're feeling pretty good about yourself, aren't you improv coach/teacher/rockstar?

As well you should.  You just taught an engaging, fun, intellectually complex lesson.  However, if you take the time to look at the balance of power in the conversation, at whose voices are heard, you might notice something quite disturbing: a small percentage of the students are actively participating in the debriefing discussion.  What about everyone else?

I came to see this as a huge issue after facilitating a recent session in someone else's classroom.  We were reflecting on the incredible ideas presented and connections made by her students when she said, as an aside, "Yeah, but it was the same three kids who always talk in class discussions."  Doh!  In my excitement about bringing improv into the classroom, I forgot to employ the variety of strategies I've learned as a classroom teacher to promote equitable discourse.  And then I took the time to reflect upon my own class environment.  In more cases than I wanted to admit, I had facilitated the class through inequitable processing conversations--hearing certain voices far more than others.

In past years, I would have hidden in shame at this realization.  Realizing I had made a mistake, I may have hoped no one would notice.  As I've learned to embrace my failures, moving towards celebrating them, I'm here to shout out to the improv and education world: I made a mistake!  Time to fix it.

Strategies to Employ When Structuring Conversation
The Default
Far too often, teachers rely on the default structure of any classroom discussion: teacher asks question, students with ideas who are willing to share raise hands, teacher calls on one student at a time who then answers the question asked (usually while looking only at the teacher), teacher verbally responds, teacher calls on another student.  Wow--that's a lot of teacher.

Other Options
  • Students journal (and or just sit and think quietly) before sharing out ideas--giving players who are more internal processors the time to consider their reactions and the applications of the game(s).
  • Students think about the prompt, share their ideas with a partner or triad, and then share out.
  • Go around in a circle (as a "whip") and ask everyone to share something--a word, a sentence...
  • Use a ball or a stuffed animal to toss to the person who is talking.
  • Have students call on each other instead of having the conversation dominated by the teacher.
  • Give each student one or two talking sticks--to toss in when they'd like to speak.  This option warrants a detailed explanation.
Talking Sticks
As a part of any given conversation, we are all challenged in supporting equitable participation.  For some of us, it is intimidating to say anything.  For others, it is hard to hold back from dominating the entire conversation.  What to do?
While this is not necessary (or recommended) as a strategy to use every day, or even every week, it can be helpful to employ a technique that supports all members in tackling their communication challenges.  At times, it really IS essential to hear from all participants; we all benefit from the thoughts and connections made by each member of the group.  This strategy requires a good amount of debriefing time--at least 15 minutes.

As you begin the conversation, pass out craft sticks to everyone in the group.  Let each person choose one or two sticks: If they have one stick, they MUST say at least one thing in the conversation.  If they have two, they must say one thing and they MAY say two things.  They may agree with each other, disagree, add something to what someone else said...they may say one word or go into a detailed explanation when they throw in a stick.  If two or more people throw in sticks at the same time, they simply negotiate who will talk first and take turns in a respectful manner.

There will be uncomfortable silences in this conversation.  These are necessary to create an open space for those voices that are too often absent from the discussion.  There will be students who are going insane--who have used up their two sticks and have the "perfect" thing to say.  Tough.  They'll just have to wait until everyone has used up at least one stick.  Equity is not pretty, people.  But it is satisfying, it is important, it is illuminating.

When all the sticks have been thrown in, open up the conversation to allow for a free exchange of ideas.  As the students have been talking to each other, the teacher shouldn't be needed to talk in between each student.  As a respectful, thoughtful community, your group of improvisers will impress you with their insights as well as how they manage the discussion.

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