The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 2 - Page 53


Nurturing Academic Conversations: Two Students’ Journeys

Laurie Finkenkeller


If only Sarah would share this entry in a small group, she would help ideas grow and push others’ thinking to deeper levels, but how could I get her to contribute? Dr. Pierce and I decided that I should build on her established relationship with one member of the class. I assigned one of her good friends to be Sarah’s partner. Every Monday, the class shared their journal entries with their assigned partner. These partners remained the same for a quarter of the year. Sarah had no choice but to share her journal entries, but because she was comfortable with the person I chose for her, she was more willing to talk. By doing this, I provided Sarah with an opportunity to rehearse her ideas before sharing in a small group or in the whole group later that week. This seemed to work well for her because in a few weeks, she began to engage in the small group discussions. It was a slow process, but the day she shared the above journal entry, she gained the respect of her peers. More importantly, she pushed their thinking to one of empathy for others. Throughout the year, Sarah began to share more and more in small groups. Although she rarely shared with the whole group, when she did, the other students listened!

While Sarah was quiet and hesitant to share her ideas, Sam gave the impression that he didn't really care. I rarely saw evidence that he was challenging himself to reach new levels of understanding. After considering many options, I decided to encourage Sam's deeper thinking through my responses to his journal entries. For example, when Sam wrote the following entry for Bamboo People (2012) by Mitali Perkins:

Chiko was talking about how he should have fully used his foot when it still worked normally. I think the author is saying that you should not take what you have for granted, and that you will never know when you will lose something as crucial as your leg.

I responded that I agreed with him that we should not take things for granted. Then I asked Sam to consider how losing a leg might impact Chiko and whether this loss could be a barrier that Chiko would impose on himself or that others might impose on him?

As the year progressed, I watched as Sam became more engaged in the conversations of his group or the whole class. He became more animated and began challenging the group to consider deeper levels of thinking. At the end of the year, Sam wrote a five page journal entry about identity issues in Discovering Wes Moore. His entry included the following:

I think this book makes it very obvious that where you grow up and who you’re surrounded by as you grow up really shapes who you are as a person. There is always a way to go the way you want to and not the way your environment “wants” you to, but it is not usually the easiest way.”