Classroom Discussion Guidance

(This is the classroom discussion guidance of Shane Doyle (Crow) and Megkian Doyle’s curriculum, “Living within the Four Base Tipi Poles of the Apsáalooke Homeland.”)

These lessons rely heavily upon classroom discussion. There are many questions listed that are intended to engage students in active reflection on the topics presented. While teachers may employ many facilitating activities for discussion including small-group discussions, whole-class discussions, pair shares, etc. in addition to different discussion recording methods like word webs, post-it lists, graphic organizers, picture notes, etc., the end goal is to get students talking to each other on a more-than-superficial level that engenders positive classroom communities through caring relationships.

Many teachers note that it is difficult to get some students to engage in discussion. Often it seems like one or two students will dominate a discussion and it’s easy to allow some students to just sit back and tune out. This is when we have to be both creative and informed. There are many ways to structure discussion so that everyone participates and what will work varies by class and by student. That said, it is also important to understand at a deeper level why some students participate and some do not.

Many teachers have embarked on Indian Education curriculum like the one presented here only to find that they have trouble engaging some Native students specifically in discussion. They see these students as “shy”. But the “shy” idea has been refuted by many Native students who feel that they are misunderstood in their classroom context. Thus, “shy” may not be the most accurate label for Native students who exhibit a quality we may interpret as a reluctance to speak up in class. Students have mentioned four possible reasons for this:

  • A common quality of Native teaching and learning patterns is that they rely upon a “watch and learn” philosophy. Good learners are humble and patient. They listen and are careful with their information. Good teachers are centered, often exhibited by a calm demeanor, and have a clear purpose in mind while also maintaining a willingness to take a multiple number of paths to attain the learning objective. Often a quick response from a learner that has not had adequate thought put into it is seen as foolishness, disrespectful to the teacher, and a sign of hubris. While students understand that there is a specific way to be successful in a traditional western educational system, this may be a learning system with expectations that are not familiar or comfortable for them. During times of greater stress, either in or out of class, we all revert to our most comfortable patterns. This is what is known as resilience. For Native students, this may be problematic because their places of resilience are not congruent with the places of resilience many of us access in mainstream culture. In times of confrontation, this discontinuity may be interpreted as a “passive attitude” because the student seems to clam up rather than “stepping up.”
  • The second reason Native students may appear “shy” is because they do not participate in the race to provide the right answer. Many of us use the “raise your hand with the right answer” type of Socratic method as a teaching strategy that can be very effective in assessing what students do and do not know and also the fluency of what they are able to recall. This strategy feels unnatural for many Native students because it makes them feel like they are trying to show someone else up or be “better than them.” It is taboo in many Native cultures to bring attention to the weaknesses of others by showing that you are better and you will often hear people talk poorly about someone who appears to be trying to act superior because it is believed that as soon as one does this their weakness will become very apparent to others. From this perspective, it is important to recognize that every person has unique strengths and we all need each other. None of us is “too good” to need the help of the Creator and those around us in order to find success in life. This is the reason many tribes have “giveaways.” Giveaways are a symbolic way to say, “I know I did not get here on my own. I made it because of the many people who helped me on my way.” Competitive questioning (even though competition may not be our intent) is seen as counter-productive to community because it sends the message that “I can do this on my own and I am better than you.” Again, students understand that this is a part of western educational expectations, but it is something they may have to work at.
  • Thirdly, some Native students may seem “shy” because they do a massive amount of internal processing when they are formulating answers. You may have witnessed the struggle some students have with spitting out work for their courses. Often they do not struggle because they don’t know the right answer. They struggle because they know they have a uniquely divergent view on many topics. At each point in their work they are going through “this is what I think”, “this is what they think”, “this is what they will think if I say what I think”, and finally “how am I going to say this so that they will hear what I am saying and get me?” That is a lot of thought to put into each and every question. Not only does this have a great deal of personal investment to it, it also takes into consideration a lifetime of experiences being a minority person, and generations of history related to being a member of a Native group. This type of consideration seriously slows the response time. Those of you who have participated in cross-cultural exchanges may remember feeling more cognizant of your words and actions in this context because you were conscious of how they might be received or interpreted. This occurs much more often in what we call “border-crossing” contexts. Cross-cultural experience may have offered you an opportunity to cross into a new environment where the social rules and constructs were unfamiliar. Similarly, many students also feel the impact of border-crossing on a daily basis.
  • Finally, many Native cultures have very specific social guidelines for public speaking. In mainstream society, we believe that being a good public speaker is an admirable quality and one to which everyone should aspire. This is why we have institutional support enforcing its universal importance through things like Toast Masters and the general requirement that every student take a course in communication and public speaking. Conversely, in many Native cultures, there is a belief that the Creator endows each person with special abilities rather than giving all abilities indiscriminately to all people. Some people are recognized as having a certain eloquence and even flare when it comes to speaking in public. This quality is usually recognized early on and these people are mentored in the art of speaking in public. When they have gained the proper maturity, so that they can speak reliably and without causing harm, then they are “given the right to speak” by a clan member. If a person speaks in a public setting without having this ceremonial right, any audience member may say, “You have not been given the right to talk in public about these things.” When this occurs it often brings shame on the individual and discredits what he/she may have said. If you have attended a pow wow and witnessed a giveaway or an honor dance, you may have noticed that one person generally does all of the speaking. At intermittent times someone may come up to the speaker and whisper in his ear and then the speaker will reiterate what has been said. What is happening here is that the family has selected someone with the right to speak in public for them. Then if anyone wants to praise the person being honored or add information to what the speaker has said and they do not have the right to speak in public, they relay the message to the person who does have the right to speak. Many Native students have grown up utilizing a communication pattern that follows these rules. If they are in the presence of someone who should be respected, they may speak in a low tone to someone viewed as an elder or greater in social status and offer their thoughts in an indirect route that is seen as an appropriately humble approach. Because of this, some students grow up with the belief that the Creator has not made them to be public speakers. Thus, they have never worked personally to develop these skills or been forced to develop them as a result of public expectation. Again, students understand that contribution to public discussion is an expectation in traditional coursework, but their confidence in this area may be weak because they are at a different developmental level with this skill than their classroom peers may be.


With all of this in mind, what are some strategies that seem to help Native students participate more in quality classroom exchanges?

The first thing we have to change is our tolerance for waiting time. Wait time is the amount of time you wait before you take a response from a student to a question you have posed. Establishing a longer wait time is often uncomfortable for the teacher because you feel like you can hear crickets chirping in the background as you twiddle your thumbs. Doing this, however, communicates to students that you are not looking for that one student who is always the “knower”. Instead, you are waiting for everyone to show you that they have formulated an answer. In truth, this may be a better assessment for you as a teacher anyway because it shows you that the majority of your students are reaching your learning objectives rather than telling you that at least one student gets what you are talking about. While longer wait times do take more class time, you may save time in the long run because it becomes clear what you have taught well and what you may need to re-teach.

Establishing an expectation that each student will participate in discussion is also important. If students believe that there is a certain point at which you will move on to another student or answer your own question, they will hang back until this happens. If you use a pattern that gives each person a turn to talk, this will increase student participation although it will take a number of experiences with this pattern before students will begin to provide answers that have depth. This is because answers with more depth make the student feel more vulnerable to critique or failure. The possibility of failure in front of their classmates and teacher may have more weight for some Native students because of the power they afford people from the dominant culture. Native students often feel they are under a great deal of scrutiny and judgment from people from the dominant culture because they have grown up believing that the dominant culture disapproves of Native ways of doing things. Many events and experiences in their lives may have shown this to be true even though it is certainly not universally true.

Finally, changing your classroom set-up can also enhance student participation. As a matter of basic human nature, classrooms that have row seating are conducive to hiding. In addition when teachers’ patterns of communication are studied, they unknowingly tend to take more responses from the front, force more responses from the back, and pay more attention to the side of the classroom opposite their brain-sidedness (i.e. If you tend to be more left-brained you will give the right side of your room more attention.) Research also shows that students tune into these patterns and this sets unspoken expectations about how you will question and who you will “pick on.” To combat this, a circle formation works well for enhancing discussion because there is no hierarchy of position, the teacher is communicating a “let’s work together” message by positioning him/herself in the circle, each student is one-on-one with each other student and with the teacher, and the progression of the conversation is logically circular unless people are willing to just jump in.

In having said all this, please keep in mind that these are some very broad generalizations. This means a really healthy dose of common sense, the freedom to ignore what is said here, and a good relationship with students are still needed. Nothing contributes more to the success of students than the relationships they experience within your class.