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Learn to discuss, discuss to learn

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Engaging discussions are one of the most powerful tools we have to deepen understanding, gain perspective, and foster community in a classroom setting. But for educators, facilitating these conversations can be intimidating, particularly with a group of students who may not know each other well, come from diverse backgrounds, and have different levels of comfort with speaking in class.

We learn more about the challenges and benefits of discussions with Dr. Mariana Castro, the Director of the Multilingual Learning Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a lead curriculum designer and instructor for the Discussion Project, which offers professional development geared to create welcoming, engaging, and academically rigorous classroom environments through productive discussions. She shares how this organization got started and key learnings on leading effective conversations.

To start, tell us how the Discussion Project got started.

“The two problems that we were trying to solve were both engagement and equity in voices. Several years ago at the University of Wisconsin, we did a climate survey and found that students were not feeling connected to campus, especially when it came to the teaching and learning that was happening,” Dr. Castro explains. Students often reported that there weren’t spaces for them to share, or they were concerned about what other students would think if they did.

The solution the School of Education at UW Madison came up with was a professional development opportunity for educators to learn to create spaces that were safe for students to participate in and share their authentic thoughts and experiences.

“It's both professional development and research. Where it started in higher ed, we had a parallel research path to find the impact of the training on the teachers and on students’ experiences in their classrooms. We also found that we can apply these learnings to our middle and high school students and prepare them for higher education as well.”

How are discussions different from other forms of student talk in the classroom?

“Student talk is great to have in the classroom and necessary for many purposes. But discussion is one specific type of student talk - it’s not just every time a student talks, but it’s focused on inquiry of the content and happens through both speaking and listening,” Dr. Castro clarifies. “We learn something by listening, but it's in the engagement, the speaking and listening that truly deeper inquiry, deeper understanding can happen.”

For ELs, she notes that there is a common misconception amongst educators that because they may not be entirely comfortable with speaking aloud yet, they shouldn’t be expected or asked to join discussions to avoid “putting them on the spot,” but this is actually robbing them of valuable learning opportunities.

“You are allowing and creating spaces so that students can speak and can listen in a way that is purposeful to the learning, is broadly collaborative, and therefore leads to deeper understanding. Understanding happens through the analysis of different perspectives. So that means that everybody has something to contribute, which means that everybody should be participating.”

What tips can you give teachers to plan for meaningful discussion opportunities for all students, particularly MLLs?

Planning is essential to avoid putting students on the spot or making anyone feel uncomfortable or alienated from a conversation. Dr. Castro emphasizes incorporating scaffolds into all parts of the discussion plan, including introducing the topic and giving instructions.

“So something as easy as saying, okay, here are my directions. I put them in visually, I give time for students to read them before I talk about them. Then I talk about them. Everybody has a role to make sure that the timing is okay. There's a facilitator so that kids learn how to engage in communication, and I make sure to give them time to think about what they will talk about, all before we begin.”

Dr. Castro also shares the importance of how we scaffold questions for our MLLs. You may begin with more closed ended questions to get students comfortable with the information, but then you can begin to use open ended, inquiry questions once they loosen up.

“The key is sequencing questions so that it increases the inquiry, but also that you give opportunities for students to connect it to their lives. They can use their own curiosity and their own understanding to make meaning of what they're reading.” 

The last piece is the connection to the content. Whenever students make a statement, they need to be able to back it up, and we want that connection with the content itself. 

“So it's both my experience, but it's also what I'm learning in the content. And that helps students kind of move both academically, but it also gives them lots of modeling of language because they're reading, they're talking to people, they're expressing, they're trying out language. So it scaffolds it naturally for multilingual learners because they need opportunities to think about the language to practice it and to try it and play with it.”

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Find the full interview on our podcast Highest Aspirations or download the transcript here, and learn more about the Discussion Project on their website.

Dr. Mariana Castro is the Director of the Multilingual Learning Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a lead curriculum designer and instructor for the Discussion Project. You can read Mariana’s full bio on our show notes and in the blog post featured on the EL Community. 

Mariana started her career in education working with students with significant disabilities and later with bilingual and multilingual students and their families. She taught science, ESL and bilingual education before becoming a coordinator for bilingual programs in her district. She worked for over 17 years at WIDA leading professional learning, standards development, and Research & Evaluation. She has authored multiple books on formative assessment, language education, and more recently, equity in dual language education. Throughout her career, she has also served as a teacher educator of both, pre-service and in-service teachers. Her current research focuses on the language practices of multilingual students, on curriculum and instruction in dual language immersion programs, and on teacher professional learning. Mariana brings over 30 years of experience in education to her research and development work. In her research, Mariana integrates her background as an educator, her passion for working with bilingual and multilingual children, youth and their teachers, and her commitment for social justice