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Minds On, Mouths On – Engaging Classroom Discussion for Learning

“I want to go back to Simon’s point.”

Emma has been waiting patiently for several minutes.  She’s been leaning forward, eyes following the conversation, as these seventh grade students have kept their exchange going for much longer than we had expected, and with the intensity of thought that we do expect.

“I want to go back to Simon’s point because I’ve changed my mind.”

The 7th grade Utah Studies students are discussing an issue that at first impression might not seem so engagingly controversial.  They are exchanging thoughts on whether Utah native chief Wakara (he of the 1853 “Walker War”, horse theft and slave trading, peaceful and violent interactions with the Mormon pioneers) should be honored by giving his name to a road, the Wakara Way that runs up from Foothill Drive through the University of Utah to Red Butte Garden.  What is keeping these students gripped by the discussion is that they are wrestling with an essential and authentic historical question:  what should we make of the past?

“I’ve changed my mind because I think Simon emphasized the more significant things that Wakara did.”

The students have been working on how they assess significance.  They have been working on how they listen to each other, how they express agreement and disagreement, and how they use what they hear to keep on thinking.

“I think Simon is right to say that Wakara was trying to find a way to survive in a time of very fast change.”

Ricardo is eager to disagree, but has not interrupted Emma:  “I don’t think we can say that for sure because we don’t have any evidence (his emphasis) about what Wakara was thinking.”

These seventh graders have their mouths “on” because their minds are “on”.  They are learning to think for themselves, to respond to others, to interact productively, to disagree without being disagreeable. These are important academic skills.  These are essential social and civic skills.  This is why we at City Academy have an ardent conviction in the importance of the classroom in education.

And yes, of course, the students enjoy this.

“Thank you,” says Emma as she leaves the room. “I loved how intense that was.”

Names changed to respect student privacy.

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