Op-Ed: Classroom Discussions
Lauren McNeese, Staff Writer

Does the current graded English discussion achieve what it aims to? Is it a helpful assessment or a hurtful hindrance? Do the students involved experience stimulated or stunted growth? Are there other, more helpful ways to assess students?

I used to be painfully shy, but over the course of the past few years believe myself to have grown as a speaker. I view this is a direct result of many trials and triumphs, and lessons learned along the way. This past year, I read poetry at each monthly Nonesuch Original, I was a main speaker for several debates at JSA conventions, and I was on a student panel for a forum on vaping. All of these instances were uncomfortable and nerve-wracking at first, but I grew to enjoy them. I have gone from viewing such events as scary to exhilarating. 

Despite this, I am very much against the idea of forced English discussion participation. I believe that this has hurt me in many ways, as a student of English and as a person, and while I may be a minority of students who experience these detrimental effects, I certainly do not believe that I am alone. If a student is to grow as a public speaker, it will be in spite of, and not as a result of, graded Socratic seminars. 

Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, expresses her thoughts on the subject, writing that students need to be helped with a carrot, not a stick, referencing the Carrot and Stick Approach of Motivation. This theory asserts that in motivating individuals to elicit desired behaviors, sometimes rewards are given, and sometimes punishments administered. By grading students in discussions, are we offering helpful feedback? Or are we effectively penalizing students for their fears? 

Drew Campbell, high school English teacher and head of the English department, shares what teachers look for when grading discussions, such as demonstration of skill required to make discussions good. This would include active listening and speaking skills as a part of English curriculum. Students are evaluated and given feedback on how they do that. Campbell elaborates, saying that “you grade the skills which you are trying to build.” This begs the question, I believe, of whether or not grading the skills which you are trying to build is resulting in the desired goal. In other words, is grading the way to build this specific skill set?  The purpose of the graded Socratic seminars in which we partake as students is that of any other intelligent discussion, which is to reach a greater understanding. 

Cain argues that grading students based on participation may not be the best way to help them. While Cain specifically addresses “shy kids” in her article, Valerie Strauss, writer for the Washington Post, keeps her argument more generalized. She writes, “The truth is that there are many reasons students may choose not to verbally participate in class. Some students are painfully shy and perhaps even introverts. Other students choose their moments to speak carefully, participating in silence for long periods before they decide to speak aloud. Some are quiet in school and loud in other contexts. Sometimes a student’s silence protects her from ridicule or bullying. In many cultures, silence is a sign of deep respect and more highly valued than talk.” 

Regardless of where one stands on the subject, it is a truth universally acknowledged that in order to be successful in today’s world, it is imperative that students learn how to speak in large group settings. However, are they to be taught through coercion via grades? Are they to be punished for silence? What about if instead of claiming that verbal participation in high school discussions is a prerequisite for lifelong success, we rethought how we understand students’ silences? 

Chris Slaten, high school English teacher, wrote an article for a promotional CCS mailer, stating that “The best discussions develop humility, empathy, curiosity, and confidence, and in entering into them we awake to the truth of our own limited perspectives and the reality that the pursuit of truth is both individual and communal.” That sounds profoundly beautiful. I would very much like to partake in a graded discussion like the one described. However, I believe that the perspective of a teacher greatly differs from that of a student. 

As a student, I am thinking about how to achieve an acceptable grade. If I have to speak five times in a discussion to do this, then I will speak five times in a discussion. That may be to the detriment of the discussion. My silence could have enabled one of my peers to contribute in a more meaningful manner. My silence could have allowed for someone else to speak who hadn’t yet. Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine poet, essayist, and short story writer, charged humanity with: “don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” Is this becoming “Don’t talk unless you only said three things? Then by all means, go ahead, whether or not your talking is helpful?” It seems that there is a negative implication with grading students based on this system. Emily Klein, Montclair State University education professor, recently advocated for a new grading system in which students would receive one grade for the mastery of the material, and a separate grade for character. Klein proposes that this would reward students who make meaningful contributions to the class discussion. 

While researching the practice of the graded Socratic seminars in our school systems, it became alarmingly clear that this is an American practice. Cain asserts that “it is not irrelevant that American schools, which value verbal confidence at least as highly as quiet study, are falling behind their International peers.” Our educational system is creating a divide between that of deep and contemplative thought and shallow speculation by employing such a policy.  

Should the practice of graded Socratic seminars in the English classroom be abolished? After carefully looking into the pros and cons, I do not believe that one comes to the conclusion that this practice needs to be suspended altogether. I do, however, believe that our educational system needs to stop equating silence with apathy, verbal participation with intelligence, and quiet nature with weakness. We should continue to seek to challenge all students: that is, after all, how they may grow. This discussion is not about letting students simply get away with lack of participation. This discussion, I propose, is about our educational system seeing students as unique individuals with different strengths and weaknesses and meeting them at their individual point of need.