3 Ways to spark conversation in the modern classroom

Feb 19, 2019

It’s been roughly 30 years since Stephen Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s still, hands down, one of the most relevant reads of our time.

Why? Because it offers gems like this:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Stephen Covey, Habit #5

Amidst the noise of political polarization and the deepening rifts in social, racial, and religious lines, no advice could be more sage or more sound.

In Habit #5 of his best-selling book, Covey points out that we 'have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.'

In other words, we know how to talk at people, but we aren't always as good at talking with them.

How many times have you found yourself waiting for another person to stop talking so you could start? We listen with an agenda to reply.

As Covey puts it, we're either speaking, or we're getting ready to, but there's little work being put into the listening that's supposed to happen in-between.

Craziest part about all of this is...at the heart of problem-solving lies the unique ability to listen empathetically first.

Certitude might get you there fast, but it won't get you far.

Our job, more than anything else, is to help our students solve the real problems of the world. i.e. the heuristic ones.

And if they're going to do that, they need to hear the problem out, right?

So our classrooms need to be the main HQ (headquarters) for building empathy and understanding. And the best way to do that is to let them talk.

But I thought the rule was 'no talking'?

It sure is, isn't it? Almost every classroom I've stepped foot in as a child sure made it that way.

And if we unpack this for a moment, it's probably because allowing students to engage in conversation threatens the very thing so many teachers cling to: control.

But as a fellow teacher put it during a webinar I recently hosted, today's teacher needs to be more of the 'consultant, not the commander'; and I couldn't agree more.

Yet I'll be the first to admit that putting teenagers at the helm of conversation is freaking scary, ok?!


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legit scary, scary.

Why? Because only the good Lord knows what could potentially come out of their mouths once they get going, and I'm the last gal who wants a call from a parent, or a meeting with admin--or heck, a lawsuit if we're goin' there.

So I'm definitely not suggesting you simply let your kiddos 'have at it' Lord of the Flies-style. Surely you'll need to bust out the potter in you to carefully mold and shape the classroom culture surrounding those conversations beforehand.

But once your students are ready to take up the Talking Stick, I say, let 'em have at it. The more they talk, the more they hear; the more they listen to each other, the more they understand one another.

And if they can get to the root of the problem, they certainly have the potential to relocate that bad boy into healthier, safer soil.

So let's talk about some ways to let the conversation sparks fly in your classroom, each complete with a 21st-century twist...

#1 | Change My View

Somewhere in the recesses of Reddit exists a platform called Change My View (CMV). A sub-reddit (if you will), CMV is a space where users are invited to share their opinions in order to gain perspective.

It features conversations on virtually every issue imaginable: everything from tipping your waitress to unpaid internships, talk about Brexit, or whether equal opportunity can potentially lead to increased depression...

You got people throwing shade on things like rap music and makeup, whether or not you should give up your organs when you die, or whether or not it's morally wrong to steal the little hot sauce bottles at Chipotle...

From the mundane to the academic (and somewhere in the space between), there's a little something for anyone who's up for conversation.

The spirit of CMV is two-fold:

First, instead of positioning issues as a back-and-forth debate, where one party 'wins,' CMV treats them as conversations. The whole point is to engage participants in civil discourse as opposed to a duel--where they learn to understand one another, not quibble over quandaries.

Another keystone of this platform is that participants have to be willing to adjust their initial position, so this means they have to be open to what others have to say + willing to recognize that their own word isn't necessarily bond.

Try telling that to a teenager...

But speaking of which, what sets CMV apart is that its foundations run completely counter to the spirit of certitude we see underpinning so many other platforms for discussion such as debate.org (where one side is winning while the other is losing, one side is clearly 'for' and the other merely 'against'.)

The best way to learn something new is to listen to a viewpoint you oppose.

Timothy Borup via Twitter

And they run a pretty tight ship, these guys. Created by Kal Turnbull when he was just 17 years old, his vision involved breathing new life into sharing opinions online, getting genuine feedback, and growing from that conversation.

So his platform takes great pains to make that happen.

Submission Rules

First of all, /r/changemyview outlines a list of well-defined submission rules, which are actively moderated, and according to CMV, 'provide a strong foundation for discussion.'

Per one of these rules, 'OP's (or those persons responsible for submitting their views) are asked not only to explain the view itself, but also the reasoning behind that view, or why they feel that way.

Recognizing that arguments and the opinions that fuel them don't exist in a vacuum, this approach helps commenters take context into consideration as they prepare their response.

Rules for Commenting

There's also some rules for commenting, too, so as to encourage the best outcome possible, which would be a civil, productive convo.

The most important of these rules involves prohibiting comments that simply agree with another's view. The core premise behind this is to avoid the whole 'echo chamber' effect, and instead, challenge others to genuinely listen and engage.

Reward System

And then of course there's the rewards system CMV is famed for: the almighty delta system. So before I explain this, let me paint you a picture:

You know that feeling when someone gets you to see something in a whole new light, and you're like, 'wow, I never thought of it that way...gee, thanks!'

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That's the magical feeling when someone has managed to Change (Your) View; so if someone does this for you during a CMV conversation, you would award them a delta (the triangle-shaped, Greek symbol used in math, which stands for 'change').

A delta is kind of like a digital badge you give to someone, thanking them for the enlightenment.

And according to CMV, it doesn't have to be a 180-degree twist in view that you have, either. Just a heightened state of understanding from where you once were is all that's really required. An altered vantage point.


As teachers, we can gain a great deal from a resource like this. Already, we can see that CMV showcases and celebrates the various elements of an argument, though students are not arguing in the traditional sense, outright.

They're learning about claims and evidence, of course, but they're also being asked to consider the root of those claims and the environmental conditions surrounding them.

They're learning to listen for those clues, thereby gaining empathy as a result of it.

And, truth be told, they're practicing these conversations in a digital space, which is the realistic context in which most conversations they'll have will ultimately take place.

Here's one a student recently submitted. It is as intentional as it is moving to see young adults actively seeking understanding, support, answers, and solutions in real ways with real people:

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(In fact, I totally respect CMV's efforts to clean up the way we engage in conversation online.)

Now you might be wondering how I can guarantee this as a safe space for kids to engage online. And I'll tell you flat-plain I don't have that approval stamp for you.

But don't get your bloomers all in a bunch yet, my friend, because I've got your back yet.

Change My View is, in fact, a public forum where any Joe Bloe might be hangin' around, waitin' to troll or prey on some innocent person, including our teens.

But recall that I said CMV actively moderates this platform. Not only do the people behind the CMV curtain take good care of these conversations, they also take good care of students!

Specifically, they've recently recognized the tremendous potential for using CMV in the classroom, so they've created a PDF guideline for teachers and students.

And if you let the moderators know beforehand, that you're planning to use CMV with students, they'll actually work out a system with you to make that happen safely! (Visit the 'Using CMV in classroom setting' page for more information.)

So that 'controlled environment' isn't gone entirely...we can let down our classroom walls without exposing our students too harshly to the elements.

But speaking of which, and like any other resource you use in the classroom, you'll need to tour around CMV before sending your students in...there are plenty of conversations you might need to steer clear of.

Not to mention, the 'anti-delta' page (where you learn how NOT to act on CMV) employs a few, colorful words as examples (er, non-examples). So do review it!

If you're feeling entirely too skiddish about using CMV outright, you could always start with a simulation of it in the classroom.

That's what History teacher Jonathan Gold did:

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In fact, something like this can be a fantastic scaffold toward more authentic exchanges outside classroom walls. If you want to learn a whole lot more about Change My View, visit their website, or see Change My View in action on Reddit and explore the various wiki pages they have there (I recommend the Argumentation page, which is a fantastic classroom resource-slash-reference!)

I challenge you to tinker around with their rules, moderation systems, and processes and, at minimum, create your own classroom CMV! (Post your wins on social media and tag me...I can't wait to see what you re-create!)

When people argue online, you don't expect any of the parties to up-and-say, 'hey, you know what, you're right. I change my mind.'

But with a tool like Change My View at our fingertips, we can teach students just how possible that kind of sane exchange can be.

#2 | Socrates & Steve

An age-old classic for churning up a conversation in the classroom has always been the Socratic Seminar, and I legit swear by these, dude.

For those of you who might not know, a Socratic Seminar is a student-led conversation that roots itself in critical questioning or inquiry. At face value, the teacher takes a back-seat, but for a Socratic session to work, it takes some serious back-stage planning on our part.

Since the conversation is usually opened up by a stimulus of some sort, it's our job to pick the right question or the right text, or the right media clip (or other) that is powerful enough to entice students into the conversation.

We also have to think about access points, ways to get our students to feel comfortable enough to contribute in the first place. This might involve creating a handout of statement starters (such as the ones I feature in my Free Resource Library!) or it might require you to co-create a set of Seminar guidelines or expectations with your students beforehand.

And then there's the format...how will you organize students? Will you form one, big circle? Or will you do inner and outer circles, called 'fishbowl'? Will you run two Seminars concurrently, with a parent volunteer or team-teacher facilitating one and you the other?

How will you record, gauge, measure, and reward participation and contribution?

So yeah, though we don't talk much the day of, we put a lot of thought into how we're going to get them to talk!

And all of this is totally doable, but in most conversations, I have with fellow colleagues, plenty of teachers shy away entirely from Socrates' suggestion to 'let them lead.'

And the number one thing about Seminars that keeps us up at night?


That unbearably thick, palpable silence that casts its mists over the learning space, blinding our confidence as the steerers of this Good Ship Learn-a-Lot.

I'll *never* forget the first Socratic Seminar I held. Or the second one. Or the third.

Painful. Silence.

For the lack of better pop cultural terms...awkward AF...

I started feeling like that Socrates guy was absolutely crazy, and I cursed ye mighty gods for making me look so utterly stupid over and over again.

But for the sake of the 'good ol' College Try,' I gave it one more go.

And I'll always remember, hold dear in my heart, the fourth one. That was the one where Manny turned to me and said, 'hey, Miss? When we gonna do this again?' Now pair those words with this look of eager hope mixed with inner gratitude he was giving me, like, 'whoa, that was cool.'

Talking. Silence. Thinking. Exchange.

It was all going down, and they were serious about it. And that's when it hit me that it finally hit *them*...this is what learning is supposed to be like.

Talking is part of the blueprint. (Unfortunately, it just hasn't always been built out that way for them).

So if I were to pick one to share with you, this quick video below says it ALL (from student perspective) what a Socratic Seminar *feels* like when it actually works.

Now I hear you in the back of the room...

For some of you, this whole Socratic-Shmo-cratic talk is easily old news, and I seriously hope that's the case. But I've only told you about Socrates.

Now I need to tell you about Steve.

I'm talking about none other than the late, great Steve Jobs himself. And the purpose of including this conversation avenue for you to explore is because I also want to introduce you to an app you can download on that iPad of yours to assist you in your Socratic strategizing.

I've actually been using this app (easily) since 2014, but in mentioning it at any workshop or PD opportunity I've facilitated since then, pretty much no-teacher-ever had heard of it. So I feel it my calling and my duty to utter this one from the rooftops.

Equity Maps.

But let me back that up for a second...

If you've ever conducted a Socratic Seminar, you've likely had to draw a physical map of those participating in the discussion, and you've likely ticked marks next to their name each time they participated. Or maybe you simply did this alongside the left column of your attendance roster. No?

Well Equity Maps is a tool you can use to track the inner-workings of virtually any conversation (classroom, coaching, PD, etc.).

So let me give you the snapshot here. Literally.


With Equity Maps, you can create a map of your discussion table, then you just tap on the person's icon each time they speak, thus tracking the flow and direction of the conversation.

That's it. The app does the rest.

It gives you powerful data and metrics to let you know who spoke, how often, and for how long each time. You can record portions of the conversation, and you can even mark moments of chaos, among other features. And by virtue of its name, it even gives equity analytics (perhaps a whole other conversation in and of itself!).

The many features this app has to offer encourage participation, collaboration, feedback, reflection, and metacognition...the dream-team set of superpowers every student should have walking into a 21st century world.

Plus, it makes your job a heck of a lot easier (and it makes your scoring system a whole lot more measurable).

For me, it was a game-changer in getting students to buy in much faster than they were before.

The first day I used it, I didn't say a word. I told them, 'ok, go!' in setting off the conversation, and then I set to work 'playing' on my tablet.

At one point, a student asked, 'Miss...you playin' Candy Crush over there?'

That gave me a good giggle, of course. So I took that moment to flash the metrics on the big screen for all to see.

Mic drop.

The kids were amazed by their own behaviors! So quite naturally, this opened up a whole, new conversation where my learners were talking about their own processes.

They were looking inward, and they were addressing ways to re-frame their approach for next time.

It also gave me the opportunity to sit down with those whose voices were less apparent in the conversation. It gave me the chance to be like, 'Pete, Everything okay?'

Bottom line, it gave me a chance to dig in to the internal monologue going on in Pete's head. Maybe there *was* something going on. Maybe he was busy handling a voice of his own, one that was dominating the conversation in his mind too much to allow him to speak up on other matters otherwise.

I didn't punish Pete for his '0 engagements' or '0 times participated'. Instead, I used this data to open up the lines of communication between him and me.

#3 | Back-channel, Center-stage

Thus far we've talked about ways for students to listen more empathetically to one another, to enter the conversation and take part genuinely.

But we, teachers, sometimes need a means for listening empathetically, too.

Once again, let me set the scene:

You're in class. And you're attempting to begin the day's lesson, following the six interruptions that just went down, including but not limited to:

3rd hour announcement schedule, an admin walk-thru, the teacher next door sending six kids to the back of your class to 'make up a quiz,' and an overhead projector that just doesn't want to boot up this morning.

Such...such are the joys...

So you're short on time, and increasingly short on patience. But you manage to fire up a review of last night's reading.

And in the process, you've actually managed to get Johnny all fired up about the book. He's so excited in fact, that he's firing off 20 questions at a time, to which you can barely keep up.

You *want* to give this kid your attention, you want to entertain his passionate interest in the text. But time is already running thin and you're losing focus from the group entire.

How can you listen empathetically to Johnny's ideas, questions, and insights without tell him to wait until next week?

Why, show him the back door, of course!

So by definition, a backchannel is a secondary route for the passage of information, right?

Backchannels are an unbelievable conversation tool that can be used in so many different ways, but the main point is that it gives you the ability to have more than one conversation taking place in your classroom simultaneously, or in ways where more than one person gets to speak at a time (without spiraling into utter chaos, anyway).

Now based on the scenario above, if you're carrying on your conversation about topic X, but Johnny is obsessed with topic Y...he can add his ideas into a 'backchannel' to let them out, and you can double back to these when the time is right.

As in this example, backchannels can help teachers maintain the integrity of the lesson plan without sacrificing student interests and the need to be heard. In other words, it can be an outlet for the Johnnys of the world whose needs stretch beyond the confines of your intended learning targets.

But it's also great way to give voice to literally every kid in class, as it caters to their preferred mode of communication, be that spoken or written.

So how does it work? Well, I recommend something called yoTeach!

yoTeach lets you create a meeting room for any occasion. You can password-protect the room if you'd like (which I'd recommend). Then all your students need to do is go to the website, type in your room name, add in the password, and boom! They're in.

They can begin adding their responses to a running scroll of digital conversation as it rolls out in real-time.

Expert Tip | I'd have a protocol for 'nicknames' when students are prompted to create these...that way you can hold all participants accountable for participation and for their weight of their words, if you know what I mean...

You can use backchannels in a number of ways...

Reading Aloud/Silently, Literature Circles

As questions about the reading arise, have students pop their real-time queries into the backchannel so they don't forget. Then, you can work together as a class to categorize and curate these questions into chunks, which can then be turned into "Chat Stations."

At each station, students can get started by simply observing and analyzing the questions they themselves posed at various points during the reading experience: how are the questions of so many unique individuals similar, different, overlapping, etc.

Finally, groups can set to work in unpacking these queries using their text and each other to guide as they rotate through the Chat Stations.

Socratic Seminars

But of course! If you're using a fishbowl framework for Socratic Seminars (where there's an inner and an outer circle), and you're not quite sure what to have your outer circle doing--other than tracking the conversation of the inner circle--why not have them have their *own* conversation?!

This is probably my favorite way to use a backchannel because you can literally be doing two things at once. Once the inner circle conversation is complete, compare notes with the outer circle's backchannel log to see what ideas repeat, build, overlap, complicate, conflict.

Do this as a whole group or in small groups (perhaps those groups consisting of two inner circle members + two outer circle members, so you have representatives from both conversations!)

Navigating Logistics, PD

And finally, the most practical way (which you'll often see in larger college lecture halls or at professional development meetings, for instance)...

You might have students using the backchannel to navigate small but mighty (and potentially disruptive) details like:

  • what page are we on?
  • what was the name of that TED Talk she mentioned?
  • when is our homework due?


For this one, you could have a student leader or parent volunteer help you manage this influx of basic queries...a Virtual Assistant, if you will.

I've used backchannels while running workshops. Backchannels like yoTeach, BackChannel Chat, and Tozzl are kind of like a digital 'parking lot' that can be used at events like this.

To clarify, the traditional 'parking lot' method is where I invite participants to jot down all their random, burning questions, share-outs, or insights as they occur, recording these onto sticky notes and adding them to a large poster sheet by the door. Then, as we get to those topics, I pull the questions or ideas to be shared and field them accordingly. That way, everyone's questions, contributions, ideas and insights are valued.

Well the backchannel is just a digitally savvy way to do that, and it's legit running in the background (on the big screen!) while a lesson or a session takes place.

To wrap it all up...

A little less talk, a little more conversation, okay?!

As writing teachers, it's important for us to remember that arguments are social creatures. They have conversational roots. To teach the ways of the argument, we'll therefore need to take that into account.

Give your students both time and space to explore the two-way exchange of ideas. It'll help them become better thinkers, better communicators, better problem-solvers, better humans.

Along the way, our writers will learn valuable lessons about what it means to genuinely listen to others, and they just might learn a little more about themselves, too.


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