Yvonne Divans Hutchinson

Teachers and students participate in a broad conception of literature and oratory. –from Tenets of Culturally Relevant Teaching in The Dreamkeepers by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Promoting Literate Discourse

My protocol for Promoting Literate Discourse grew out of my concern about reticent students whose shyness often leads to their missing out on the learning that occurs when one engages in oral discourse. Moreover, I could not countenance the silencing of anyone’s voice in my community of learners. On the first day of school I always give my students a 3 x 5 index card on which they write basic information: name, address, parents name, etc. I ask them also to include three facts about themselves that would be helpful for me to know to be a good teacher for them.

Not surprisingly, many students revealed a reluctance to speak or participate actively during class discussions. Giving speeches or oral presentations, of course, was anathema. Their reactions did not surprise me. I had spent years and years, coaxing, cajoling, and even gently intimidating students to speak out in class.

Yet, the reply from Elena, a ninth grader and a recent immigrant from El Salvador, pierced my heart, “I don’t ever want you make me to talk. I don’t know English so good.” Dismayed, I refuse to comply with her request that I overlook, ignore, discount, disregard, and, and above all, silence her. A former drama teacher, I knew that many actors were actually very shy people who came alive when they mouthed the words of others.

Therefore, I decided to give Elena and all of my reticent students a way to make their voices heard. After students write in their journal as a daily warm up to class, I invite them to share their entries. Then I take volunteers. Occasionally, I link the topic to the upcoming lesson. In this case, I ask all students to share at least a sentence or two from their writing as a way of transition into the lesson. At the beginning of the year in Elena’s class, I offered students the option of saying simply, “I do not wish to share,” if they were reluctant to speak.

Elena gave the stock response for the first two or three weeks whenever she was called upon. Then, for some reason, she began raising her hand during discussions about reading and making insightful contributions. Ah ha, I said to myself. She discovered that the floor doesn’t open up and swallow her when she speaks. As the year progressed, I discovered that Elena had a sharp and critical mind. Quite possibly, her own intellect made demands of her that made it imperative to express her ideas, in spite of herself. At any rate, her contributions to class and small group discussions, her written responses to literature, and her essays, though replete with the characteristic errors of a second language learner, clearly revealed an acute intellect. To ensure that students like Elena would not go unrecognized ever again in my class, I devised a set of stock phrases to encourage literate discourse in my classroom.

A more recent success story underscores the value in implementing the protocol for literate discourse. The case involves, not a second language learner, but an African American student. Brandon, uncharacteristically quiet in class and an underachieving gifted learner, landed in my “regular” college prep class English in ninth grade because of his low grades in middle school. An avid reader, he always had a book in his hand. He, too, had warned me on his student data card that he preferred never to be called on. Moreover, because I had a prior association with his family, he talked to me privately and reiterated his request, even though I had been adamant when I informed the class that everyone’s voice would be heard.

Whenever called upon he relied mostly on the stock phrases and we could barely him, but during group discussions which were about literature, his passion, he began to find his voice. His classmates valued his contributions and often chose him to report out after group discussion or to take the stage* to lead the group’s presentation in front of the class. In addition, he had to stand and deliver* the class scribe report, a daily report of class activities and learning that rotated on a daily basis to a student in the class. Noting that he was becoming more motivated to do well, I asked his counselor to place Brandon in my honors tenth grade English class so that I could continue to encourage him to achieve at his level of potential. His work in my class, while still below his capability, had begun to improve, and his enthusiasm for oral presentations and class discussions had mushroomed.
At the beginning of the school year, he astounded us by taking the lead in discussing a play about the historic Scottsboro Boys case that he and a small group of students from our honors English class had attended with me the night before. He masterfully and insightfully guided the discussion, which centered on the real life historic event depicted in the play and how it was analogous to our core text, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, inviting his classmates to share their perceptions and lending coherence to the group’s analysis. And, in a delightfully serendipitous occurrence, the principal chose that day to visit our classroom. Needless to say, she was bowled over by the class, especially Brandon.

Nor did Brandon stop at mere speechifying. Acting caught his fancy as well. Later in the year, during our study of Macbeth, Brandon and his group staged an inventive, lusty scene from the play, including the wearing of plaid skirts (their version of kilts, sewn by Brandon’s girlfriend, Grace). Now in his junior year, all vestiges of his reticence totally erased, Brandon, the once shy bookworm, recently won the leading role in the upcoming school play “Dracula the Vampire.” Take the stage, indeed!
*Stand and Deliver, Take the Stage are commands I give when it is a student’s turn to read, share writing, speak, or make a presentation. Whenever someone wants to share a piece that is solely original or of her/his own creation, she/he must Stand and deliver, that is stand somewhere in the room in a spot facing the audience. Take the stage means to go to the front of the room or any other area that has been designated as the arena for formal speeches and presentations. When students share their writing with the class, they may sit in one of two author’s chairs at the front of the room. These two high folding stools have been “endowed” with the nameplates of the novelist Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes, the poet.

Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson, NBCT
King/Drew Magnet High School
of Medicine and Science

Protocol for Discussion: Promoting Literate Discourse in the Classroom

To ensure that everyone, especially the most reticent student, speaks up in class, I require at least a one-sentence reply whenever someone is called upon in class discussion. The ground rule is that everyone must speak, if only to demur. And if a peer calls on another, the student must respond with a cogent answer. S/he cannot demur. The students learn stock responses so that everyone develops the habit of engaging in discourse. During discussion, which is usually open-ended, students are encouraged to express their ideas, thoughts, and opinions, and to justify them with evidence and logical reasoning. Students who are bereft of ideas momentarily may resort to the stock responses that appear below. Since we understand that everyone needs varying lengths of time to think, members of the class will sit quietly and wait for a response from their more reticent classmates. They might even coach him/her to make the appropriate response.

Stock Responses

You don’t know the answer: I don’t know, but I will try to find out the answer and get back to you.
You are confused: I am confused (or I don’t understand). Please tell me…(Ask a question that articulates your confusion or lack of understanding).
You haven’t done the homework or are unprepared: I regret to say that I am not prepared;I won’t let this happen again.
You were not paying attention: I apologize. I wasn’t paying attention; from now on, I certainly will be more attentive.
You wish the question repeated for clarification: Would you please repeat (or restate) the question?
The discussion is of a personal nature, and you do not wish to participate.
I do not wish to share this time, but I will be happy to share the next time (Note: the class usually holds the student to this promise).
You are having difficulty coming up with an answer. Please come back to me; I’m still thinking.
You disagree with someone else’s response or you feel s/he has given an incorrect answer. I respectfully disagree. I think…. I feel… or “ I have a different opinion. I think…(State your opposition and justify your stance).
You agree, but want to add to what was said or extend the idea in someone way. I agree with (person’s name). I feel…think….My idea is similar to ________’s idea in that… or I want to add to what ________said.Final Stipulation

We agree early on that peer pressure is a most powerful form of persuasion among teenagers; therefore when a peer calls upon a classmate, s/he cannot demur; a cogent response must be given.

Toward that end, I have devised a system that enables students to call on each other. I employ this system whenever I am having difficulty getting voluntary discussion or when I want to make sure everyone participates in the discussion. I call on the first person. Subsequently that student calls on someone who appears to be a different race, ethnicity, or gender, and who is not part of the student’s clique outside of the classroom. Additionally, I may stipulate that the speaker calls on someone who has not spoken recently or often.