Fostering Dialogue in the Classroom: Lessons Learned While Teaching Cultural Literacy

This post is written by member Ruth Li.

In teaching, I aim to cultivate in students an understanding of literacy as a form of civic participation. Yet in my daily interactions with students, creating a balance between engagement and control has been a constant challenge.

To invite a space for generative, yet genuine intellectual inquiry, it is important to balance guidance and freedom in equilibrium: to offer a foundation for ideas, yet open up multiple possible pathways and positions for students to pursue. In navigating these tensions, I have constructed journal topics based on essential questions that are sufficiently broad to allow a variety of entry points as well as backgrounds and experiences; for example, while teaching Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch: “In what ways do our cultures affect who we are?”

In a similar sense, while experimenting with various formats for discussion prompts and procedures, I have found that planning and posing each question for the class to discuss in turn can be stifling in its structure. On the other hand, providing a few potential issues for exploration can be liberating in enabling learners to delve into unexpected topics and ponder unique perspectives. As a discussion flows organically, the most rewarding moments have arisen when students posed original questions to each other in a dynamic dialogue, blurring the lines between the roles of teacher and student. In opening up opinions and weaving new webs of ideas and insights rather than following a predetermined path, learners are able to attain agency and contribute constructively to the conversation.

Students are, after all, social creatures, agentive and interactive beings, whose combined consciousness coalesces into constellations of complexity. In contrast with a framework of passive reception, in the Freirean sense, learners transform their own experience as much as they are transformed by it. In a process of actively constructing knowledge through collaboration in the Piagetian sense, students navigate the negotiations between the self and the other as pluralities proliferate, ideas intersect, and contentions collide. Dialogue, therefore, liberates the pedagogical praxis.

To engage and empower our own and others’ voices, to welcome a diversity of perspectives within the context of civil discourse, to encourage civic participation in the Ciceronian ideal of democracy for which Hirsch has argued, to resist conclusiveness while opening up to the complexities of experience: these are the aims toward which we as citizens must continue to live and strive in the classroom and in the world.

Ruth Li has taught high school English for the past three years in charter schools in Utah and Florida. She will join the Ph.D. program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the fall.

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

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