In the current evolution of California teaching standards, called the Common Core Standards, one skill that is emphasized is students' participation in "collaborative conversations." A collaborative conversation is a teaching and learning event in which people talk critically and analytically about a topic under study in a small group. At Peregrine School, this often takes the form of a conversation between one of our classes or a smaller group of students, and a teacher. It can also be student to student without a teacher involved.In one of my recent classroom observations at the elementary school, teacher Chris Erickson was working with a group of 5-7 graders as part of his integrated language arts and history curriculum about the ancient world. His focus is on the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, for its perspective on Rome, and as a piece of literature. Since Shakespeare is hard for students this age to read, Chris is using several sources at once: a graphic novel version of the play, short passages from Shakespeare himself, which the students "translate" together into modern English, and a video of the play.
A sample of collaborative conversation: In the new state Common Core Standards, the “collaborative conversation” is an important skill which students practice in many contexts. The goals of such a conversation are student engagement around a serious theme, collaborative contributions from many students, and critical thinking skills, such as debate. The way in which Chris models this kind of collaboration with his 5-7 grade class is well illustrated by the following discussion.
Chris’ class is reading Julius Caesar in graphic novel form, as part of their study of Rome. Eight kids are sitting around the table. They take turns reading. Some get dramatic and act out the action. Others then edit them, saying “that’s not in there”. Chris suggests that we can all see the pictures, so we only need to read the words.
One kid comments on the killing of Caesar: “Why did they do this?” Chris asks the question: “Was it a good thing to kill Caesar?” He writes this question on the board, saying that the two speeches in this section are the arguments on both sides, and that this will be the question of the day.
Garnet says: “I think it was right to kill Caesar because he would have grabbed too much power.”
Becca responds: “I’m not sure. There is no proof if he would have done this.”
Garnet says: “The strongest people get voted out first, like in Survivor.
Julia: Yes, but in Survivor, you can vote strong people out, but you might need them to get enough food. It’s a question whether you want them to get food for the future or if they pose a future threat. The same is true of Julius Caesar.
Garnet: I think that people tend to vote out really strong people. They are afraid of them.
Alex: I disagree. They usually die.
Garnet: You didn’t watch the show!
Chris: Let’s bring this back from the show to the play. What is the equivalent of food in Survivors for these Senators? What might they want to keep Caesar around for?
Katrin: Caesar had a will. Did he know he was going to die?
Chris: People have wills even if they don’t expect to die soon.
Julia: Why couldn’t they have had Caesar sign a contract, that if he did certain things, he would be out of power?
Chris: You mean why did they have to take such an extreme measure as to kill him?
Garnet: But he is really strong willed. They would not believe he would follow the contract.
Rodrigo: He’s power hungry.
Luke: What happened with his wife?
Julia: Didn’t she have a dream? But I don’t believe that dreams really predict things. Like if I watch a horror movie at 12:00 and wake at 3:00 AM, I might feel like the things in the movie will really happen, but they won’t.
Chris: Let’s look in the novel and find Caesar’s wife’s dream.
Kids say that the wife realizes it’s the Ides of March. It is bad luck. She wants Caesar to stay home.
Caesar responds: Cowards die a thousand deaths.
His wife begs him to stay home. Then Caesar agrees to stay home for her.
Chris: This scene makes an important point. You said that Caesar is stubborn, but here is evidence that he is not, that he changed his plan based on what his wife wanted. Then he is influenced by Brutus. Brutus tells him that if he goes to the Senate that day, he will be crowned Emperor. So he decides to go, over-riding his wife but because of Brutus’ advice. So he does change his min, twice.
Luke: But you can’t deny that he’s powerful and power hungry-
(he changed his mind and took a risk in the hope of becoming Emperor)
Rod: He was trying to look noble, says “You can trust me when I’m king.”
Chris- Romans didn’t want a king, but were willing to accept a dictator for life.
Ethan- Makes a crying sound effect.
Chris: Now let’s talk about the rhetoric and who is more persuasive. We will break down the two speeches, for and against killing Caesar. Chris passes out these passages from Shakespeare.
Chris- First we have Brutus’ speech to the Plebeians. Who are Plebeians?
Katrin: the middle classes.
Students now “translate” the speeches into regular English, writing sentences in modern English next to each of Shakespeare’s sentences. They do this together, as a group. Chris explains that this is the speech in which Brutus tries to convince the Plebeians that he is trustworthy.
Chris: “Censure me in your wisdom.” What does this mean?
Kids struggle and try out various responses.
Julia: Is it “only judge me using your wisdom?”
This goes on for about ten minutes, with each sentence analyzed. Everyone is totally engaged. When someone is too loud, Chris asks: “Are you getting this down?” Behavior is controlled through the context of the lesson.
Chris: There is a very famous line here: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” He was trying to tell the Plebeians that he acted out of love rather than out of hate in killing Caesar. But it was love for Rome.
After everyone has written their translations, the class is asked to read the Shakespeare passages out loud, in parts.
Chris says to the class: “I’d like you to read this in parts. To see the Bard’s poetry drip from your mouths.”