By Travlyn Langendorff
As a high school American Literature teacher, Travlyn knew that her students needed to develop their discussion skills. Through collaborative inquiry with her colleagues, she not only deepened her understanding of what it means to engage in substantive discussions, but also made discoveries about her learners, her teaching practice, and herself. Her knowledge gained through inquiry had a direct, positive impact on her students' ability to express their ideas through discussion and writing.
“I am a complete idiot,” I thought as I attempted my first experiment in my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry. “This is never going to work, and I am going to look stupid in front of my new colleagues.” Hired after the school year started, I was invited to join the Mills Teacher Scholars group at my school after my colleagues had already started their inquiries. Eager to make friends and worried that my teaching skills were rusty after a five-year hiatus, I took the plunge. In classic “me” move, I decided to use the inquiry process to take on the most challenging issue of my teaching with my most difficult class: Third Period, or as I thought of them, The Period of Doooooom. The goal? Improve my students’ class discussion skills.
So there I was, faced with an 11th-grade American Literature class filled with recently reclassified English Learners, most of whom had already decided to go to continuation school. Several students had 504 plans and some had IEPs. None read or wrote at a high school level, with the exception of one student. I was determined to do a better job of getting these students to have substantive conversations about the texts we were reading. I am a talker, so facilitating class discussion is tough for me as well, as I tend to feel convinced I know a lot more than my kids do. True story: this inquiry taught me otherwise.
As I began to watch videos and read articles, it seemed like the most effective class discussions had a high rate of participation. So at first, to gather data for my inquiry, I just counted the number of students who participated and tallied the number and types of their responses. I tracked group and individual responses and started awarding points for participating. However, after a few months of this counting strategy, my students’ responses were not any more substantive. Then a colleague in my inquiry group asked me a question:
What do you mean by substantive?