Classroom Discussions

My students and I recently read a personal essay by a teen whose father is in prison. The author, Justin Burl, wrote movingly about how the incarceration of a parent affects loved ones. He also discussed how his life changed for the better when he found a support system—an organization that works with incarcerated persons and their families.

I knew the essay had the potential to spark deep and meaningful classroom discussion. I also knew that in order to propel the discussion in that direction, I would have to ask questions that went way beyond the text. The typical, comprehension-type questions just wouldn’t cut it.

When reflecting on the lesson, a tiny built of guilt nudged its way into my thoughts. Had I squandered time I could have spent getting students ready for the high-stakes, end-of-grade test they would take in June? I had definitely strayed beyond the “four corners of the text.” I had not focused on “text-dependent questions.” We did not talk about “text structure” or “objective summaries” or “word choice.”

We did, however, engage in a wide-ranging discussion about facing your fears and finding your voice and loss and love and empathy. My students did gain a real understanding of the problems families face who have loved ones in prison. There was a meaningful exchange of ideas and a lot of critical thinking taking place.

This experience was a terrific reminder for me that sometimes we need to go beyond the text. Sometimes we need to allow students to explore issues in depth by simply discussing them.

K.J. Wagner  Education Oasis