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I have been thinking a lot lately about the challenge we face as educators when well-intentioned learners make incorrect, inscrutable, thoughtless, or otherwise off-the-mark comments. It’s a crucial moment in teaching: how do you respond to an unhelpful remark in a way that 1) dignifies the attempt while 2) making sure that no one leaves thinking that the remark is true or useful? Summer is a great time to think about the challenge of developing new routines and habits in class, and this is a vital issue that gets precious little attention in training and staff development.

Here is a famous Saturday Night Live skit, with Jerry Seinfeld as a HS history teacher, that painfully demonstrates the challenge and a less than exemplary response.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that we are always correct in our judgment about participant remarks. Sometimes a seemingly dumb comment turns out to be quite insightful. Nor am I talking about merely inchoate or poorly-worded contributions. That is a separate teaching challenge: how to unpack or invite others to unpack a potentially-useful but poorly articulated idea. No, I am talking about those comments that are just clunkers in some way; seemingly dead-end offerings that tempt us to drop our jaws or make some snarky remark back.

My favorite example of the challenge and how to meet it comes from watching my old mentor Ted Sizer in action in front of 360 educators in Louisville 25 years ago. We had travelled as the staff of the Coalition of Essential Schools from Providence to Louisville to pitch the emerging Coalition reform effort locally. Ted gave a rousing speech about the need to transform the American high school.

After a long round of applause, Ted took questions. The first questioner asked, and I quote: “Mr Sizer, what do you think about these girls and their skimpy halter tops in school?” (You have to also imagine the voice: very good-ol’-boy). Without missing a beat or making a face, Ted said “Decorum in high school is very important. There has to be a climate that supports real learning. Other questions?”

Wow. I immediately made a mental note: always, always dignify the question – even if it means slyly evading the particulars; return the conversation to a certain plane without making a questioner or commenter feel dumb; control your facial expressions to always look appreciative of the contribution.

The challenge is heightened, however, when we have to call out a comment as unhelpful or inappropriate. This happens a lot in workshops. Someone will give a patently incorrect example of, say, and Essential Question (e.g. “What is a linear relationship?”), and I know that I can’t allow the non-example to slide, with time for understanding the concept so limited. Short of simply saying “No, that’s not an EQ because…” (which is sometimes the right response, if said in a flat tone of voice), one can put the challenge back to the questioner: Well, a minute ago we said EQs are open-ended and thought-provoking. Do you think your example meets those criteria?

George Hillocks in Teaching Argument Writing Grade 6 – 12 provides the rationale for always grounding discussions in such agreed-upon criteria as a way to balance dignifying the speaker with the quest for understanding:

One teacher talked about her unit on the hero. The hero, she said, could be “whatever the students came up with” – there were no criteria that had to be agreed upon. “Everyone has a hero, and we do not have to agree on the reasons.”  Does that mean, I wondered to myself, that students could say someone is a hero because she bites her fingernails, enjoys watching comedy shows on TV, sings out of tune… ? If so, then this assignment could not prepare students for the rigors of making a serious argument in any field.  Pp 108-109

I have heard teachers many times make this mistake of treating every student contribution as if it were true or objectively helpful when it was not. This well-meaning attempt to honor the contribution often ends up badly since students may no longer know what the goal is. (The goal is arguably increased understanding supported by mutual respect through collaborative inquiry, not merely feeling a part of things.) Concept attainment and effective learning more generally require that teachers ensure that examples are distinct from non-examples and that incorrect responses don’t end up seeming correct because no criticism of any kind was offered about them, only warm gratitude for the contribution.

Hillocks’ point also reminds us that serious argumentation of the kind demanded by the Common Core is at the heart of the matter. Rational and respectful discourse requires clear agreed-upon criteria by which contributions can be dispassionately judged. If we agree to the criteria together, then my asking you to see any disconnect in the criteria vs. your example advances understanding with no loss of face.

This constant demand for justification addresses the challenge of dicey comments nicely: you as a teacher don’t ever have to say someone is “wrong” since you need only ask the speaker or other students to find (or not find) the relevant support. Such an approach dignifies the comment (since we seek to find out the degree of its truth) and underscores the core lesson that mere opinion is not sufficient. As I used to say to my English students: no answer is certain or true, but some answers are better than others – and our job this year is to figure out how that is so.

Core routines and protocols, therefore, should not just be about “behavior” but intellectual norms that de-personalize disagreements. Here are some Seminar Norms from my teaching days. At the very least, get everyone in the habit of following your lead in asking: “Where is that in the text?” or “What evidence supports your idea?” When students routinely ask such questions and take on such roles, discussion moves to a higher and more rewarding plane. (We discuss many more such intellectual routines in our new Essential Questions book.)

Alas, even with clear goals and ground rules, there are going to be times when kids say  unwise or unhelpful things. Students pay close attention to how you handle such situations. My favorite response was always to furrow my brow, look the kid straight in the eye, and say: Joe I know you know better than to be so insulting to Myra; you know the rules and why we have them. This is dignifying: it makes clear that Joe knows the rules and why the rules matter, and can normally be expected to act appropriately. It also honors the old aphorism: focus on the behavior, not the person.

One year I had a fairly sizable group of hockey players in my class, and one boy proposed a funny and ingenious solution to such problems: a penalty box, with 2-minute or 1-minute time-out penalties for “misconduct” as in hockey. I heartily agreed to the system, and deputized he and another hockey player to serve as referees. While the experiment lasted only a few class periods, everyone was both amused and enlightened by the protocol – the point was made, with egos intact.

So: what are some of the more off-the-wall learner comments you have had to deal with? What are some solid protocols and artful responses you have crafted to handle clunker comments? How might you work this summer on establishing more explicit and respectful routines?

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