Monday, December 2, 2013

Chalk Talk: Low-Tech Solution to Engage Students in Substantive Discussions

How can we engage students in high, quality substantive discussions on profound topics? One potential way to do this might be to adopt a tradition like our school has practiced since its founding: it's our "the Chalk Talk" tradition.  It is called that because our original "Chalk Talks" were done on a true blackboard and chalk located in our main hallway. Now, we use a large white board that extends several feet along the wall in our main hallway.

The philosophy behind our "Chalk Talk" is simple: We want to to give our students opportunities to engage in profound questions and ideas. Using our Chalk Talk board, our students take the lead by writing the question on the board, and as students walk through the building during the day or after school, they respond to the posted question and to each other's responses. After several days, the end result is a graffiti of student responses, many of them demonstrating much deeper and more profound thinking than what they show in other settings.

One recent question really got students to thinking on the nature of religion in society and in their own lives. That question was, "Does society need religion?" While educators often avoid these kinds of questions like the plague due to the controversial nature of possible answers, if we're going to really get students to thinking in-depth and critically, then we can't wall off the topics and questions just because they make us uncomfortable. In fact, I submit that much of the polarization in our society exists because we don't know any longer how to engage in civil discourse on the controversial and simply be tolerant. This "Chalk Talk" gives us an opportunity to teach students that they can disagree civilly and respect other's beliefs. We can agree to disagree.

Perhaps the "Chalk Talk Principle of Substance and Civility" is best illustrated by an incident where a student recently asked me, "Does it ever make you nervous about the questions we post here?" I thought for a moment, and then answered, "Not really. I might find myself having to answer some parent or community concern questions, but as long as I can defend the civility and substantiveness of the activity, I have no problem with it." We teach students how to respect differences and diversity by not enforcing conformity, but by our willingness to allow students to engage the what is often uncomfortable and that might cause an administrator to be nervous.

Here's the process for our Chalk Talk:

1. A student writes a substantial question on the Chalk-talk board. There are no guidelines or rules posted on what the topic should be about. The communicated expectation is that it must be substantive and require thought and debate as well as response.

2. Once the question is posted, any of our students, and staff (they often like to engage in the discussions too, not control them) post responses. Students simply use the white board markers left at the board for this purpose to write their responses to the question or to other responses. The only rule we have is that we must be respectful, considerate, and tolerant in our postings. Being civil and tolerant in word and deed is the rule.

3. A question may stay up for a week or two, or just a few days. Nonetheless, students are in charge of the entire process for the most part. Occasionally, a staff member will post a question too just to join into the discussion. Students are free to write responses as they pass by the board throughout the day.

There are some who would ask, "Why don't you post some kind of discussion board online instead? It would be much easier for students to access and post." My answer to that is simple. Having a physical board in the hallway means more. Often, it's common for student responses on this board to spill into what we call extended hallway chalk talk discussions. I for one found myself engaged in one the other day with staff members and students. The discussion was extremely profound, and I suggest that I learned as much as the students. The physical board serves as a kind physical place, not unlike a city square or like a Roman forum, where the exchange is with ideas not goods or services. An electronic space could not provide this experience. Besides, high-tech does not always mean better.

If we as school leaders want students really engaged in substantive talk and discussions, we have to realize we can't control the conversation. We can provide the environment. We can encourage respect and tolerance and model civility, but we can't wall off everything that makes us uncomfortable and tell students they can't talk about that. Chalk Talks are a means to foster a true sense of learning community.

Chalk Talk Board in Action

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