“Only Connect”: On using dialogical methods to reform the toxic culture of communication

Adobe Spark (1)Today was Sunday, December 30,2018.  As is their wont at the end of a year, the Sunday morning news programs ran their “year in review” discussions.  Face the Nation ended their broadcast with several of the pundits lamenting the loss of common experiences.  Locked behind doors, our screens as portals to personal experiences, or to siloed experiences, we lack the kind of publicly shared, common wonderings that used to create, if not unity, at least a sense of community.  Where once we could walk down a street and look in windows to see 90% of people watching their radios as FDR delivered a fireside chat, we now sit behind LCD screens in gated communities, blithely unaware of our own privilege and prejudices.

Image result for fireside chats

This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been on this path since the 80s when Newt Gingrich leveraged the power of dissent and gamesmanship to rise to power and, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, “turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport” (NPR, 2018)  But perhaps 2018 made us understand just how far we’ve gone and forced us to decide whether we want to return to the sort of caring community that listens more than it talks; or whether we want to continue building walls that shelter our fragile opinions, blocking the voices of those who think differently from us and echoing back the words of those with whom we agree.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Waterson

I’ve already made that decision.  Students in my classroom are engaged in dialogical learning throughout the year.  Weekly discussions using the Touchstone Discussion Project, regular Socratic Seminars (I don’t recall where this came from, but whoever did it, I thank you), dialectical notebooks, novel chats, pinwheel discussions (and this example), Literary 3x3s (pages 35–44…Thanks to Dan Ryder @wickeddecent) and the occasional creative dialog  (example here) complete the repertoire. (I leave out here my over 25 years experience as a coach of speech and debate, though surely it is foundational in my use of these methods.)


Example of an extended, group Literary 3×3 as a reflection on my English Class, 2016

When students learn to listen deeply to their peers (or the works of the authors we study), when they come to class prepared to discuss the texts and issues at hand in a culture of cooperative communication, when they learn that disagreements are chances to understand rather than chances to dig their heels in deeper, when they practice the difficult but necessary task of listening to all ideas, to bearing the silences that naturally populate such conversations as everyone contemplates new and challenging ideas…when all this happens, we learn to open ourselves to new ideas.  This openness develops into a wide and diverse marketplace of ideas where we do not throw rotten tomatoes or nasty tweets at each other.  We toss our opinions into this marketplace so that others can engage, play with, and further develop or respectfully refute our ideas.  Learning, then, is not simply a give and take, not merely the “Chalk and Talk” (though there is a place for that).  Instead, it is a dialogue, an iterative, developmental process in which we all grow and benefit, including the teacher.

(To see this culture far more developed than my own, visit the work of Monte Syrie at https://www.letschangeeducation.com/ )

And while I am an English teacher, such methods are not the sole purview of my discipline.  Courteous, kind, constructive dialogue is at the heart of all learning.  Socrates surely demonstrated this, but the best of our parents or relatives do this as well.  There must be compassionate ears and hearts behind the work we do as students and teachers if we are to reform the toxic culture of our current national dialogue…if we are to (re)learn that we must talk, listen, and seek to “only connect” lest we “surely . . .  hang separately.”

To Foam Cube or Not to Foam Cube?

Readers of this blog will remember that students in my Design Lab class redesigned the classroom, created a prototype and budget, and presented their concept to my school district’s grant-giving foundation.  They did such an outstanding job they earned a $2500 grant.  Part of the redesign was to set aside money to test out

dschool foam cubes

Part of the redesign was to set aside money to get our hands on some of the famous “d.school Sugar Cubes.”  (Ok, this was my own stiff demand.  If I wasn’t going to be able to go to the d.school on my own, I’d try to bring
the d.school’s environment to me.)

So the image at the top represents a set of 4 foam cubes, ordered from  http://www.foamorder.com/ .  (They were the cheapest I could find, but I didn’t look as much at the local level as I should have.  Very happy with their customer service, however.)Luckily, they were able to special order the cubes from a supplier closer to my location (near Philadelphia, PA) and save us a bunch of $$ on shipping.  Nevertheless, those four cubes represent a considerable chunk of change.  And for those of you as spatially challenged as I am–16″ x 16″ is actually a large piece of real estate.  I’m not going to announce how much these were for several reasons, none the least of which is to protect myself from ridicule.  However, the functionality and potential in these cubes is as advertised.  I’ve already seen students picking them up and imagining how they might put them to uses other than for seating.  (No…not for throwing at each other.)

As our classroom evolves and begins to more closely match the vision we had in October of 2016, I’ll continue to post.  And if anyone knows how I can procure solidly built project tables that would accommodate the use of 26″ stools or standard plastic chairs and seat 4 people at each table, please let me know.