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Creating Epistemological Pathways to a Critical Citizenry: Examination of a Fifth-Grade Discussion of Freedom


by James S. Damico & Cheryl L. Rosaen - 2009

Background/Context: Research has demonstrated that moving from traditional teacher-directed, monologic practices to dialogic discussions remains a daunting challenge. The reasons for this staying power are multiple: Teachers often stick with familiar canonical texts; districts often mandate the literature teachers must use; standardized tests emphasize discrete skills, strategies, and bits of knowledge rather than open-ended interpretations and responses; and many new teachers either continue to be trained with a monologic framework or have had few experiences with classroom discussions in their own education.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Although literature curricula and instructional goals get increasingly framed reductively in the form of mandated curricula and basal readers, and student achievement is measured through batteries of tests, findings from this study show how dialogic literature discussions and the forging of epistemological pathways can help us see children and teachers as intimately involved in the exploration and coconstruction of knowledge and ways of knowing fundamental to developing an informed, critical citizenry. The research question is, How do a group of fifth-grade students and their teacher cocreate and navigate an epistemological pathway during a whole-class literature discussion? Subquestions are, (1) What ideas are introduced, explored, and examined during the discussion? (2) What practices do students engage in during the discussion? (3) What practices does the teacher engage in during the discussion?

Setting: The study took place in a multiracial fifth-grade classroom in an urban elementary school.

Research Design: This is a qualitative case study of how the examination of a key idea—freedom—unfolds during one literature-based discussion.

Data Collection and Analysis: The primary data sources for this study were a videotape and transcript of one class discussion. The ideas that were explored in the discussion and the questions asked by the students and teacher were identified. Then the specific practices of the teacher and the students as the discussion ensued were noted, which led to analytic categories associated with the content of the discussion (the nature of knowledge) and the practices (nature of knowing) that the participants engaged in.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study demonstrates how an epistemological pathway metaphor offers a way to understand the complex and fluid web of meaning that students and their teacher coconstruct and the navigation practices that the participants enacted as they engaged in a dialogic discussion that explored students’ questions and probed the meaning of the concept of freedom. Conclusions point to the importance of creating classroom spaces for dialogue, and investigating what ideas get explored and the practices that teachers and students engage in. This leads to implications for preparing teachers to facilitate dialogic discussions.



Engaging students in discussions has been found to improve student achievement (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991) by enhancing participants’ learning across cognitive, social, and affective dimensions (Almasi, 1996); by promoting deep understanding of texts; by improving higher level thinking, problem-solving ability, and reasoning skills; and by improving communication skills (Gambrell, 1996; Langer, 1995; Lipman, 1996). Discussion-based approaches, especially in contexts with high academic standards, have been shown to help students internalize knowledge and skills to better engage individually with more challenging literacy tasks (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003). Some scholars go even further to argue that engaging students in discussions is fundamental to living and learning in a democratic society:


It is no wonder that conscientious teachers are forever trying to engage their students in discussion. Both democracy and understanding rely on it—democracy because forging public policy together is the basic labor of popular sovereignty, and understanding because dialogue is the basis of thinking. (Parker, 2001, p. 111)


Yet how are such discussions enacted in the classroom? Consider, for example, three questions students raised at different points during one whole-class literature discussion in an urban fifth-grade classroom:


AARON: Do we even know that the definition [of freedom] inside that [dictionary] is real?


ALICIA: Well, I’m asking for anyone who wants to respond. Is Harriet [Tubman] emotionally free? To think what she wants? To feel what she wants?


TINA: Can someone be physically free but not really mentally, emotionally, or spiritually free?


These student questions invite participants to think deeply about the concept of freedom and help frame the focus of this article: initiating and sustaining dialogue through the posing and pursuing of student questions. We examine the ways that a first-year teacher, Ruthie,1 and her students drew on Aaron’s question to cultivate a dialogue (Burbules, 1993; Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachur, & Prendergast, 1997) within a seminar discourse structure (Parker, 2006). By examining closely one whole-class discussion, we illustrate the ways that they forged a pathway for treating the idea of freedom not solely as a topic or theme but also as a focus of sustained, intellectual inquiry. Using the metaphor of epistemological pathway, we elaborate how the class took up questions related to the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing as they investigated the concept of freedom.


This article begins with a description of two related terms that inform our conception of dialogic discussion: dialogue (Burbules, 1993; Nystrand et al., 1997) and discussion (Parker, 2006). We then consider research on epistemological beliefs (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Kuhn, 2003), and we explore its connection to dialogic discussion, which leads us to explain how the metaphor of epistemological pathway pulls together a set of concepts that help us investigate how students and their teachers might construct knowledge during discussions and how particular practices shape the content of those discussions. Next we describe the research context and participants, and our approach to analysis of the content investigated and practices enacted by the teacher and her students during one whole-class discussion. We then guide readers through a description and interpretation of this discussion as we endeavored to better understand the dynamic interplay between the content that emerged and the practices in which the teacher and students engaged. Finally, we discuss how our findings point to the importance of creating classroom spaces for dialogue, investigating what ideas get explored and the practices that teachers and students engage in, and implications for preparing teachers for facilitating discussions.


Taking up these topics seems especially important in our current educational context in which high-stakes testing, mandated curricula, and other institutional constraints have been increasingly shaping classroom practices (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Valencia & Villarreal, 2003). As literature curricula and instructional goals continue to get framed reductively in the form of basal readers, and student achievement is measured through batteries of tests, there are fewer opportunities and external incentives for teachers to approach instruction with a dialogic framework and corresponding set of goals in mind. These challenges threaten the already precarious position that dialogic discussions hold in classrooms. However, dialogic discussions offer distinct opportunities for students and teachers to engage deeply with ideas and work collaboratively as knowledge producers (Parker, 1996, 2006).


The findings from this study point to these possibilities, highlighting how dialogic discussions can help us see children and teachers as intimately involved in the exploration and coconstruction of knowledge. And it is this kind of knowledge building that embodies principles and emboldens a vision of classrooms and schools becoming what Dewey (1899/1964) called “a miniature community, an embryonic society” (p. 303), in which an important aim is to involve directly citizens who are concerned with larger societal issues and whose life-chances are affected by them (Dewey, 1916).


THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


We are interested in examining classroom discussions both as an approach to instruction that helps students learn through exploration of concepts and ideas, and as a curricular goal in which teachers try to help students learn to participate capably in discussions (Parker, 2006; Parker & Hess, 2001). This dual focus requires understanding discussion as a complex activity that is enacted in social situations for a range of purposes.


THE NATURE OF DIALOGIC DISCUSSION


According to Burbules (1993), dialogue includes questions, responses, redirections, and building statements that constitute a continuous and developmental sequence. He posited that dialogue cannot be reduced to a method or technique, arguing instead that dialogue is “at heart a kind of social relation” in which participants cooperate “in the face of likely disagreements, confusions, failures, and misunderstandings” (p. 19). Moreover, dialogue involves trust, concern, and mutual respect, is guided by a spirit of discovery and an attitude of reciprocity, and requires that participants remain committed to establishing and maintaining social bonds.


Burbules (1993) also laid out four types of dialogue that enable us to think broadly about how knowledge is conceived, constructed, and critiqued: dialogue as conversation, inquiry, debate, and instruction. Burbules made two kinds of distinctions among these four dialogue types. The first concerns the type of knowledge that is constructed—the convergence or divergence of a dialogue. A convergent dialogue is directed toward consensus and a more definitive end point, whereas a divergent dialogue emphasizes pluralism, difference, and epistemological open-endedness. This distinction is similar to Barnes’s (1976) conception of “final draft” versus “exploratory” talk in classrooms. A second distinction examines how inclusive or critical a dialogue is. An inclusive stance begins with an accepting stance toward others and a focused attempt to understand their contributions. A critical stance is more skeptical and questioning of participants. These ideas suggest that the purposes for dialogue are connected to practices in which participants engage.


Parker (2006) used the term discussion to outline shared responsibilities and practices in classrooms when teachers and students construct meaning through talk. He distinguished between two classroom discourse structures that feature two different purposes: seminar and deliberation. The purpose of a seminar discussion is interpretation; participants are encouraged “to plumb the world deeply” toward an “enlarged understanding of the text and one another” (p. 12). This resonates with Burbules’s (1993) descriptions of divergent and inclusive dialogue. A deliberation is geared toward decision-making, identifying and appraising alternatives, and choosing a course of action, thus aligning more with Burbules’s descriptions of convergent and critical dialogue. Parker went on to argue that both discourse structures, seminar and deliberation, involve “opening oneself to difference” (p. 11) and thus are elemental to public discourse and citizen formation.


Burbules and Parker help us understand dialogue and discussion as sets of social practices. Their ideas align closely with sociocultural perspectives of learning (Moll, 1994; Vygotsky, 1978), which contend that “meanings and understandings are inseparable from the cultural and social contexts in which they occur” (Billings & Fitzgerald, 2002, p. 909). Students and teachers in classrooms, for example, engage with texts and each other in “an environment of mutual care and concern” (Smagorinsky, 2001, p. 161). Additional norms for participation include voluntary and active involvement, and the pursuit of intersubjective understanding (Burbules, 1993).


CHALLENGES IN LEADING DIALOGIC DISCUSSIONS


Literature-based discussions in classrooms can range from monologic, teacher-directed, or “teacher-fronted” practices (Forman, McCormick, & Donato, 1998), in which teachers take on traditional authority roles and lead students toward more predefined outcomes, to dialogic, more student-focused approaches in which students assume key leadership responsibilities in creating and developing meanings during discussions. However, research has demonstrated that moving from traditional teacher-directed, monologic practices to dialogic discussions as defined by Burbules (1993) and Parker (2006) remains a challenge (Barnes, 1976; Billings & Fitzgerald, 2002; Christoph & Nystrand, 2001; Mercer, 1995; Nystrand et. al., 1997; Young, 1992). The reasons for this staying power are multiple: Teachers often stick with familiar canonical texts (Applebee, 1989); districts often mandate the literature that teachers must use; standardized tests emphasize discrete skills, strategies, and bits of knowledge rather than open-ended interpretations and responses; and many new teachers either continue to be trained with a monologic framework (Christoph & Nystrand) or have had few experiences with classroom discussions in their own education (Parker, 2001). These are some structural forces that contribute to antidialogical practices in schools (Burbules) in which “expository talk in contrived settings” dominates (Gee, 1990, p. 42).


Leading discussions well is also challenging because, as Burbules (1993) posited, it requires a particular understanding of the relationship between teachers and students. Typically, teacher and student relationships are thought of as a dichotomy, teacher centered versus child centered, in which either the teacher or the student(s) directs the flow of a discussion. Disrupting this dichotomy requires adopting a conception of power that involves students’ ideas, voices, and inquiries, and emphasizes the pivotal roles and responsibilities that teachers enact in this process (Edelsky, 1999; Lampert, 1990). Teachers can share power and responsibility with their students in a variety of ways (Damico & Riddle, 2004), such as posing provocative problems or questions (e.g., Bigelow, Harvey, Karp, Miller, 2001; Lewis, 2001; Shor & Freire, 1987; Sweeney, 1999) and resisting using prepackaged curricula (Edelsky; Fecho, 2001; Skilton-Sylvester, 1999; Vasquez, 2001). In other words, teachers can be active participants during literature discussions, challenging and guiding students (Lewis; Sweeney). Teachers also can offer explicit instruction when warranted, keeping in mind that being explicit does not necessarily presuppose a teacher-dominated pedagogy of transmission (Luke, Comber, & O’Brien, 1996; Shor & Freire).


EPISTEMOLOGY AND CLASSROOM DISCUSSIONS


Conceptions of dialogue (Burbules, 1993) and discussion (Parker, 2006) and considering the challenges that teachers face in conducting them are imbued with assumptions about epistemology (the nature and justification of human knowledge) and, more specifically, the theories and beliefs that individuals hold about what knowledge is and how one comes to know. Hofer and Pintrich (1997), in a review of research programs that investigated students’ thinking and beliefs about the nature of knowledge and knowing, outlined four dimensions of epistemological beliefs. Two dimensions are associated with the nature of knowledge: (1) the issue of certainty, or the extent to which knowledge is treated as fixed or fluid, and (2) the issue of simplicity, or the extent to which knowledge is treated as a discrete set of facts or, alternatively, a complex web of meaning. Two dimensions are related to the nature of knowing: (3) the source of knowledge—whether the sources are external or internal, and individual or social, and (4) the justification of knowledge through use of evidence or warrant.


Kuhn’s research (1999, 2000, 2003) brings into view an additional perspective by describing how epistemological understanding—of what it means to learn and to know—develops through stages, from absolutist to multiplist to evaluativist. In the absolutist stage individuals hold knowledge as certain and unproblematic and remain unconcerned with issues of justification. The multiplist stage is characterized by views of knowledge as idiosyncratic and highly personal. With the evaluativist stage, there are shared norms of inquiry and knowing, which leads to an understanding that some positions are more reasonably justified and sustainable than other views. Mason and Boscolo (2004) discussed the movement to the evaluativist stage as a “progressive integration and coordination of the objective and subjective dimensions of knowing [where] only at the evaluativist level these dimensions are balanced and one does not dominate the other” (p. 105). In other words, the evaluativist stage embraces the uncertain and personal qualities of knowledge construction, yet situates these qualities within a community that shares understandings and practices of inquiry, such as examining and adjudicating among conflicting claims and forms of evidence. Thus, the evaluativist stage aligns most closely with the concepts of dialogue (Burbules, 1993) and discussion (Parker, 2006) described earlier.


From a classroom perspective, the movement from the absolutist to multiplist stage tends to require little pedagogical attention; children and youth typically make the transition as they accrue life experiences and become aware that people have varied beliefs and perspectives (Kuhn, 2003). The transition to the evaluativist stage, however, requires more pedagogical consideration; students can benefit significantly when they are apprenticed into practices emblematic of evaluativist thinking, such as inquiry, reasoned argument, or discussion (Kuhn, 2003; Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002). Kuhn (2003) argued further, “It is only their own experiences that will lead them [students] to the conviction that inquiry and reasoned argument offer the most promising path to deciding between competing claims, resolving conflicts, solving problems, and achieving goals.”


Although this article does not focus on epistemological beliefs of participants (or how these beliefs change over time), the four dimensions outlined by Hofer and Pintrich (1997) and the stages of developing epistemological understanding outlined by Kuhn (1999, 2000, 2003) work in concert with concepts of dialogue (Burbules, 1993) and discussion (Parker, 2006). That is, they suggest that investigation of dialogic discussions should include examination of what types of knowledge get introduced, explored, or examined and the nature of the practices that participants engage in as they coconstruct knowledge.


AN EPISTEMOLOGICAL PATHWAY METAPHOR


To integrate these ideas and to better understand the epistemological qualities of classroom discussions, we offer the metaphor of an epistemological pathway. This metaphor is an example of what Lakoff and Johnson (1980) called “orientation metaphors,” which organize “a whole system of concepts with respect to another” and “have a basis in our physical and cultural experience” (p. 14). In our culture, we travel along paths, sometimes using them to guide us to a particular destination, and sometimes letting existing paths lead us to unknown places. Sometimes we make paths where one has not been forged, charting a course that we have not experienced. We also think of paths as representations of the journeys that we have taken as we gaze back upon them.


An epistemological pathway in the context of classroom discussions reflects a particular path that participants travel down in terms of the content or subject matter to be investigated and the practices involved during the investigation. Consider two different potential pathways. In one, the participants (teachers and students in classrooms) experience their path as linear and narrow, with the movement from beginning to end clearly more fixed, certain, “simple,” and derived primarily from external authoritative sources. With this type of path, participants place a premium on arriving at a particular destination (e.g., learning five causes of the Civil War, the process of photosynthesis, three key themes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and so on) with teacher and student practices necessarily limited to align with preordained outcomes and understandings. A different path is one that is less clearly marked, more open-ended, uncertain, and complex, and derived from a range of internal sources, along with appeals to external sources. On this type of path, participants are less concerned with traveling from point A to point B, and more interested in exploring the expansive territory that lies before them. Classroom practices on this pathway (e.g., listening to others, asking critical questions, considering alternative ideas and explanations) are as important as the actual subject matter discussed, such that knowledge is treated as fluid and complex rather than as fixed or straightforward.


We examine closely this second type of epistemological pathway in this article with the goal of identifying the knowledge that gets coconstructed in one whole-class literature discussion focused on the concept of freedom and the specific practices vital to its construction. The research question is, How do the students and teacher cocreate and navigate an epistemological pathway during a whole-class literature discussion? The subquestions are, (1) What ideas are introduced, explored, and examined during the discussion? (2) What practices do students engage in during the discussion? (3) What practices does the teacher engage in during the discussion?


RESEARCH METHODS


PARTICIPANTS AND SETTING


This article draws on data and analysis from a larger ethnographic study that examines what happened when Ruthie taught a language arts literature-based unit that focused on slavery and freedom (Damico, 2003). This literature-based unit was initially intended to be a 4-week unit based on the book, Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman (Sterling, 1954), but it blossomed into a 5-month (February to June) exploration and examination of issues of slavery, freedom, cultural differences, and social injustices. At the time of this study, Ruthie was in her first year of teaching in a small-to-mid-size urban school district with a K–12 student population of approximately 17,000 students. Of the 28 fifth graders in her class, 10 identified as African American, 10 as European American, 4 as Latino/Latina, and 4 as multiracial (African American/Latino/Native American; European American/Native American; European American/Latino; Latino/Native American). Half of the students participated in the free or reduced lunch program. James, a former elementary/middle school teacher, was a graduate student interested in exploring with Ruthie the possibilities of dialogic literature discussions, and Cheryl was serving as a research mentor to James throughout this study. Along with Ruthie and James (Damico, 2006; Damico & Riddle, 2004), Cheryl shares commitments to understanding pedagogical approaches to striving for social justice through collaboration and inquiry (Rosaen, 2003a, 2003b).


RESEARCH STANCE


A critical research stance in which researchers “do not merely analyze or study an object to gain greater understanding, but instead struggle to investigate how individuals and groups might be better able to change their situations” (Tierney, 1994, pp. 98–99) led to a collaborative inquiry approach in the classroom between Ruthie and James. As a mainstay in her classroom for much of the school year, James served as a “critical colleague” for Ruthie (Lord, 1994). He shared a range of resources with her, including picture books (many borrowed from Cheryl’s collection), songs, and poetry, and was also a soundboard as she talked through and wrestled with her ideas. As coinquirers, Ruthie and James challenged each other with questions and ideas that they were wondering about.


In January, before the unit began, Ruthie and James engaged in a number of conversations about her unit goals. At this point in the school year, Ruthie acknowledged that the students had begun to discuss literature in deeper ways by drawing connections between texts and their own lives (a study of the book A Wrinkle in Time [L’Engle, 1976] preceded Freedom Train). Ruthie, however, noted that her students still had difficulties asking questions. Consequently, supporting students to “wonder” and pose questions dominated Ruthie’s planning goals. She shared, “I just want to put a poster on the board. You know, what are you wondering about? [because] I think that’s where everything starts.” She also added, “My goal is to teach them how to ask good questions. How to ask good questions and how to work to answer them. . . . I mean a good question can take you a long way.”


DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS


Ruthie and the students worked to cultivate dialogue throughout this literature-based unit, but this article focuses solely on one whole-class literature discussion for several reasons. First, this lesson, occurring less than 2 weeks into what turned out to be a 5-month unit, provides a rough beginning point for the unit, and a beginning of a different type of classroom interaction during whole-class discussions. Ruthie and James discussed how this was a “breakthrough lesson” during the unit; they felt something shifting in this classroom as the students began to launch a different or more developed set of social practices. This was the first time that students led parts of this discussion and asked and pursued their own questions as they began to assume a more pronounced stance toward their own learning. These practices became more the norm during discussions for the rest of the unit (Damico, 2005; Damico & Riddle, 2004).


Second, many of the students described the significance of the questions first raised in this discussion. During interviews that James conducted with the students in June, students responded to these interview questions: What sticks out for you about this unit? What were the highlights for you as a student in this classroom? The students pointed explicitly to their classmates’ questions raised during this discussion. Student comments included descriptions of the contributions of Aaron and Neil and how their specific questions (first raised in this discussion) supported the recursive nature of the class’s inquiry-based work. Most students indicated that although no definitive conclusions were reached, they returned to these “same big questions again and again,” which led to, in one’s student’s words, “a lot of learning” because although some “of the questions turned out to be the same, it had like a different meaning.”


These reasons led us to conduct an “interpretive case study” approach adopted by VanZee and Minstrell (1997), in which they examined closely one discrete unit of instructional time during a discussion of measurement. Like the work of Lampert (1990) in elementary mathematics, Laman (2006) in elementary language arts, Hammer (1996) in high school physics, and Radigan (2003) in ninth-grade English, this study affords a close look at how the examination of a key idea—freedom—unfolds during a specific literature-based discussion. Close views such as these can be used to capture educators’ perceptions and judgments as situated in complex classroom life for further refinement in the future. Moreover, they may suggest hypotheses or principles that require additional empirical research to understand what it takes to carry “epistemological impact” (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 124).


The primary data sources for this study were the videotape and transcript of one class discussion. We began with identifying the ideas that were explored in the discussion and noted where student and teacher questions emerged. We then looked closely at the specific practices of Ruthie and the students as the discussion ensued. This led us to identify a set of analytic categories associated with the content of the discussion (the nature of knowledge) and the practices (nature of knowing) that the participants engaged in. Figure 1 depicts our intention to investigate how the practices and content intertwined. For example, we especially noted the impact of questions posed by the students during this discussion, which led us to view the discussion unfolding in three main segments, with clusters of ideas being developed in each segment. We present the findings in three sections that represent these main segments.


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The first section, “Launching the Discussion with an Essential Question,” illustrates how one student’s question helped cultivate a seminar discussion (Parker, 2006) about meaning(s) of freedom, in which the ideas being developed were fluid, uncertain, and not derived through external sources. Section 2, “Constructing a Typology of Freedom,” describes the ensuing cluster of ideas and the complex web of meaning that developed. We examine the impact that a reformulation of a student’s question had on the ideas that were explored, as well as the influence that a text, a dictionary, had in this process. Section 3, “Deepening Understandings of Freedom,” focuses on the final cluster of ideas in the discussion. We identify two key questions raised by students and examine how the students and Ruthie used another text, Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, to develop their ideas. Each section also attends to the practices that the students and teacher engaged in during the discussion. By thinking of the discourse space as the public space where Ruthie and her students had opportunities to share their ideas, beliefs, and values—a space where complex ideas and sophisticated practices intertwine—we were able to get a more holistic view of what was happening epistemologically during the discussion.


MOVING INTO THE CLASSROOM: EXPLORING THE CONCEPT OF FREEDOM


Ruthie began this discussion by asking students to reflect on their current understandings of freedom. This is consistent with goals of dialogic instruction, as Nystrand et al. (1997) argued, rather than operating from the premise that teachers must “identify and correct what students do not know, dialogic instruction starts with what students do know or intuit (e.g., their understanding of racism), and progressively modifies and/or expands this understanding” (p. 25). After several students shared their ideas, Aaron asked what Ted Sizer would call an “essential question,” an inquiry that probes basic human quality-of-life issues and engenders “studies which might cast light in dark corners, illuminating basic truths” (McKenzie, 1994). The question Aaron posed was, “Do we even know that the definition [of freedom] inside that [dictionary] is real?” We will see how this question helped forge an epistemological pathway into a lengthy investigation of the idea of freedom, shaping the direction of the class discussion for the next 50 minutes. There were 252 turns in this discussion. We list the number of each speaker’s contribution before the speaker’s name to show its chronological place in the discussion. We also boldface parts of the transcript to alert readers of significant segments.


SECTION 1: LAUNCHING THE DISCUSSION WITH AN ESSENTIAL QUESTION


After several students shared some general ideas about what freedom meant for them, Aaron provoked the following exchange with his question:


12 AARON: Do you even know the real definition of what freedom is? Do we even know that the definition [of freedom] inside that [dictionary] is real?


13 RUTHIE: OK. Wait a minute. I want to make sure I am understanding your question. What is your question?


14 AARON: Does anybody really know what freedom means?


15 RUTHIE: [writing on a piece of paper in front her] OK, does anyone. . .


16 NEIL: No, no we don’t.


17 AARON: And if it is really true.


18 RUTHIE: OK. Why are you asking that?


19 STUDENT: Because it’s a good question.


20 RUTHIE: OK, Aaron. Why are you asking that question?


21 AARON: The reason I am asking this question is because everybody, every person that has said something I am all hearing the same things almost. And all the things are the same—we already have that and we already can do that. And no one even, that’s all I hear. And I just want to know what the real definition of freedom is.


22 RUTHIE: OK, so from two or three students you heard similar things.


23 AARON: From most everybody.


24 RUTHIE: OK, I’ve only asked about two or three people today.


25 AARON: Since the beginning [of the unit 2 weeks before].


26 RUTHIE: Since the beginning, OK. I am writing down your question because I think it is really good, so give me a second. “Does anyone really know the definition of freedom? And is it true?” Is there anybody who can respond to Aaron’s question? [a number of hands are raised]. OK, let me tell you how this is going to go. We are going to have Neil respond, Alicia, Anne respond, Desiree, and then Mitch, Tina . . . did you have your hand up? And then Delvin—and we’ll go from there. Excuse me, I want to hear what everyone is saying and you should, too. So let’s listen. We are not going to rush through this lesson.


This exchange established a particular content focus and pedagogical flow for the discussion. Aaron,—who often struggled as a reader of conventional print texts (he worked daily with a reading specialist) yet was viewed by his classmates and Ruthie to be a “good debater,” posed the question to be pursued. The question set the stage for treating knowledge as more fluid and complex rather than certain, and the move from “you” (the teacher) to “we” (the students) invited everyone in the class to be involved in constructing a response. Prompted by Ruthie to explain his thinking, Aaron also offered a reflective commentary, contending that the class had been recycling the same line of thinking for roughly 2 weeks. In addition to guiding Aaron to clarify the purpose of his question, Ruthie facilitated turn-taking by letting students know ahead of time the order in which they would be speaking, and she informed them that she was flexible with how much time the discussion might take. Moves like this provided a signal and assurance to the students that they could contribute to coconstructing an understanding of the concept of freedom. The discussion continued.


27 NEIL: OK, to answer Aaron’s question, freedom is defined in the dictionary, but it doesn’t have, but the dictionary doesn’t have to mean that that is the only definition. Lots of people have different opinions. Just because Webster says that freedom means something that it could or could not be true because we all have our opinions. And like freedom is . . . actually I don’t think any of us can really define it the best, in the way that we best could because we never really have had the point in our lives where we have been totally free yet.  


28 AARON: That’s what I am trying to. . .


29 RUTHIE: OK. OK, who is the next person to go? OK, go ahead, OK. Alicia. Excuse me, go ahead.


30 ALICIA: My opinion is that there is various definitions of freedom. It depends on who you are talking to. If you are talking to somebody who has less freedom than you, it might mean something different for them than somebody with more freedom.


31 NEIL: It might mean just going outside for them. And it might mean going to Disney. . .


32 ALICIA: [inaudible]


33 RUTHIE: OK. Who was the next person? Anne.


34 ANNE: Well, like Aaron said something about like do we really have freedom or something like that. We do, but we don’t have freedom because some kids get picked on all the time and they get made fun of their color and stuff like that, but. . . . So, we do have . . . so that would not really be freedom because people tease you and stuff. Then freedom is actually . . . my definition of freedom is like to do what you want to do to a certain restriction of your parents.


35 RUTHIE: OK. What about my freedom? Can you answer that? Because you are saying what your definition is. Are you basing it on yourself? Could you give me a definition if you had to of what freedom is for me?


36 ANNE: No.


37 RUTHIE: Why?


38 ANNE: Because I don’t know what your limitations are, and I don’t know what you can do or you can’t do or what your parents expect of you.


A cluster of ideas about freedom was being developed in this segment of the discussion. Neil rendered problematic any reliance on the dictionary, an external source of authority, as a definitive source of truth and inserted into the discussion the role of opinions and the experience of freedom, thus positioning the students as internal sources of knowledge. He pointed out that people have different opinions and that freedom belies definition because he and his classmates had not experienced total freedom yet. Alicia suggested that people’s experiences shape their different opinions and definitions of freedom. People may not be, in Neil’s words, “totally free yet,” but some people have “less freedom” whereas others have “more.” Picking up on this idea, Anne articulated that these different experiences could be shaped by racial differences. It also bears noting that the likely source and justification of Anne’s response stems from her and her classmates’ experiences on the playground, where just a few weeks earlier, there were several incidents involving racial name-calling. The exchange between Ruthie and Anne also demonstrates Ruthie working as a facilitator [Turn 33] and participant in the discussion, prompting Anne to explain her reasoning with several questions.


There was one additional significant content-related contribution in this opening section worth noting, an explanation from a student about why different opinions persist:


52 TINA: I kind of agree with Alicia, Neil, Anne, and I mean, I get what Mitch is saying, but I think it does depend on what your background is and what you’ve been brought up to think what freedom is like, what your parents have told you and or your grandparents have told you and stuff. And so, it would be different for everybody. If you went around the whole class and said, “What do you think freedom is?” then you’ll have about 28 different people saying 28 different things.


Along with further developing the cluster of ideas about freedom, Tina, like Anne [Turn 34], acknowledged previous contributions from her classmates. Tina also disagreed with one student (Mitch), indicating the importance of disagreement in the class’s process of working with the complex idea of freedom.


Aaron helped launch this discussion in Turn 12 with his question, “Do we know the real definition of freedom?” As students challenged any adherence to a dictionary as “the” source of understanding and pointed to the impact of different opinions and different experiences, they built on each other’s ideas and, with Ruthie, established that the content they were investigating and knowledge they were constructing were more fluid rather than fixed. Aaron, however, remained dissatisfied.


SECTION 2:CONSTRUCTING A TYPOLOGY OF FREEDOM  


After these initial responses to Aaron’s question about whether freedom could be defined, Ruthie read the dictionary definition of freedom aloud [Turn 63]. The definition comprised four parts: (1) a condition or the condition of being free from restraints; (2) liberty from slavery or oppression; (3) the capacity to exercise choices; free will; the freedom to do whatever we want; (4) frankness or boldness; lack of reserve; ease or facility of movement. Aaron then reformulated his question.


66 AARON: . . .I just want to know, do we even have freedom, or is it really true if we do have freedom. Or is it a lie?


67 RUTHIE: So now your question is taking on more shape. Now you’re asking, Do we really have freedom?


Ruthie noted that Aaron’s initial question, “Does anybody really know what freedom means?” [Turn 14] had evolved, and she provided evidence to Aaron and his classmates that she was carefully attending to student questions and thinking. Pointing out to students that there was a progression or evolution to Aaron’s question, she made a key epistemological move to show that questions (and reformulating them) are as important as answers in a discussion.


During the next discussion segment, students considered whether people could “have freedom.” This line of inquiry was pursued, in part, through consideration of different types of freedom, suggesting a complex web of meaning for the concept. After Alicia reiterated the earlier point she made about people having different definitions of freedom, Neil responded,


80 NEIL: It depends on the type of freedom you are talking about, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. . .


Some discussion about freedom of speech ensued, spurred by a question that Ruthie (Turn 87) asked: “Does freedom of speech mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want?” Several students, led by Neil, argued that freedom came with restraints, with the primary restraint being “violating somebody’s else’s rights.” There was additional discussion about constitutional rights and an acknowledgment that “the people in power” created laws and amendments to ensure that people “don’t get too far out of line.” However, an emphasis on restraints and the rights of others had already entered this discussion. Mitch had pointed out earlier that “there are consequences” to all actions, so nobody can be “really free” [Turn 44].


As the focus on constitutional rights continued, Neil reiterated that obtaining an answer to Aaron’s question about the “real definition of freedom” was not possible.


124 NEIL: . . . Aaron is asking about if freedom is really real. We can’t know because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves.


Several turns later, Neil did offer a way to understand this dilemma.


130 NEIL: That question [Does freedom really exist?] will remain unanswered until somebody discovers some way for everybody to be free in every single way. That means like everybody is equal, like no poverty, everybody is on the same living level, same payday. Until that happens. . .


In other words, economic equality was one lens to evaluate what experiencing freedom could look like (i.e., no longer will people be experiencing poverty). Two students, however, challenged this conception of freedom as equality.


134 SUSAN: It seems to be impossible to be absolutely truly free because if you’re like equal, and I mean like really top equal, like you can only buy the same things at the same time and have the same amount of money, that wouldn’t be free either because you wouldn’t be able to do what you wanted. You’d have to buy the same things exactly. It wouldn’t be fair if you, well it wouldn’t be fair.


Shortly thereafter, another student, Mindy, echoed Susan’s concerns.


148 MINDY: I was responding to what Susan, what Susan was talking about, how she said that, I’m actually responding to what Neil and Susan said, how Neil said, if you want to be free, everybody has to have the same . . . equal . . . to buy the same things and you can’t do that. You wouldn’t be free. You wouldn’t be free to do what you wanted.


This excerpt highlights how the students listened carefully to others’ ideas and probed the topic of freedom from multiple angles. Stressing the importance of differences as seen through consumer preferences, Susan and Mindy respectfully disagreed with Neil’s conception of freedom as equality because equality translated into sameness, which was not “fair.” Understanding freedom as equality would result in a loss of control over individual choices.


As the students explored Aaron’s questions thus far in this discussion, they grappled with two conflicting conceptions of freedom: (1) freedom as doing what one wants to do (the first and third definitions that Ruthie read aloud from the dictionary), and (2) freedom as acting with restraints or social consequences in mind. This first conception of freedom alludes to a Hobbesian state of nature in which freedom is understood in totalizing or absolute terms. People can do what they want with little to no concern about consequences. This type of absolute freedom might be understood as “negative freedom” (Greene, 1988), in which whim and caprice govern individuals’ choices and actions. Several students focused on this conception of freedom, sharing that freedom meant “you can do whatever you want,” like “drive past the speed limit,” and “you can do whatever you want without consequences.”


However, the majority of the students’ responses more directly addressed this second conception of freedom—freedom as acting with restraints or social consequences in mind. Students were quick to point out that absolute freedom was impractical and dangerous to the safety and well-being of society. Interestingly, Tina also turned the idea of absolute freedom on its end, pointing out that in a scenario in which freedom is understood as being able to do anything one wants, “no one would do anything” [Turn 138].


SECTION 3: DEEPENING UNDERSTANDING OF FREEDOM


At this point, slightly more than halfway through the discussion, Ruthie (Turn 153) shifted the discussion to the text, Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, asking students, “How might Harriet define freedom?” Because the students had been reading Freedom Train for several weeks, Ruthie wanted to support them to draw on this additional source as textual evidence to extend their inquiry into the questions that Aaron raised.2 She indicated this intention just after this class discussion concluded, saying, “I wanted to draw them back to the text, so they continue to use it because we are not even in the middle [of the book] yet” (3/1/01). And this is what she did when a student challenged her about this.


157 RUTHIE: . . . Here’s what I’m asking. How would Harriet define freedom based on what you know so far about her? Based on her actions, based on her songs, based on what she said, based on everything that you can know about her or that you know about her so far, how would she define freedom?


158 EVAN: We don’t know enough about her.


159 RUTHIE: If you were arguing this in a paper, you would not do well saying that. You need to say something based on what you already know. Of course, it is not going to be what maybe what she would say, but you are doing this based on evidence.


Dwayne was the first to respond to Ruthie’s question, “How would Harriet define freedom based on what you know so far about her?”


164 DWAYNE: She would define it, she would say now that she’s dead that she, that she is free, but in a way she’s not and in a way she is, that she died.


This idea of Harriet possibly being free “when she died” was not taken up until later in the discussion. Instead, several students responded to Ruthie’s question, offering contributions about Harriet’s idea of freedom equating with “making it north,” “not getting whippings,” and “not being in chains.” Alicia then posed a question that would guide the rest of the discussion.

 

179 ALICIA: Well, I’m asking for anybody who wants to respond. Is Harriet emotionally free? To think what she wants, to feel what she wants?


180 STUDENT: Yes, she is.


181 RUTHIE: Wait a minute, wait wait wait. I want to write this question down, just give me a second. What is the question again?


182 ALICIA: Is Harriet emotionally free?


183 RUTHIE: Is Harriet, hey, this brings on a whole other discussion. Is Harriet emotionally [free] . . . Why do you ask that, Alicia? Do you have an answer in your head already, or you just want to see what other people think?


184 ALICIA: Well, I don’t really have an answer but . . . I ask that because everybody is talking about being physically free, to do what you want instead of being able to feel what you want. So I just wanted to know if anybody knows what she might think about being if she’s emotionally free.


Up to this point, the students had considered freedom primarily in terms of rights, laws, and constitutional amendments. Alicia opened up an inquiry path that sought exploration of different types or states of being (i.e., physical and emotional). Ruthie supported Alicia to clarify her purpose in posing the question and raised the issue of whether Alicia had already come to a conclusion about the issue. Ruthie also offered Alicia two options that she could use in her explanation. If Alicia had “an answer in her head already,” she might explain her answer. If she didn’t and just wanted “to see what other people think,” she could elaborate on this, which is what she chose to do. Students then responded to Alicia’s question, offering ideas like,  “[If Harriet] weren’t emotionally free, she wouldn’t sing” and saying that she chose not “to smile at the master.”


Ruthie then asked if, in addition to physical and emotional freedom, there were other types of freedom that the class might want to consider. A student called out, “mental freedom,” and the students considered the ways that Harriet and other characters in Freedom Train might have been mentally free. With physical freedom, emotional freedom, and mental freedom now part of the discussion, Ruthie noted a conspicuous absence.


219 RUTHIE: Yes. We talked about being mentally free, we talked about being emotionally free and physically free. Are there any other types of ways that we can characterize freedom? Any other types of ways? We’ve got mentally, emotionally, physically. What is missing here? What else did they really believe heavily in that you can use as evidence to support anything you might say?


Then after a pause, Ruthie said, “What about spiritually?” Several students responded, pointing out that slaves could be spiritually free “because in heaven they won’t be working anymore,” and “there’s not going to be any whips or any chains.” Although Ruthie named this type of freedom as spiritual freedom, it remains significant that the idea of spiritual freedom was suggested at least two times earlier in the discussion. Dwayne had posited that Harriet might have been free “when she died” [Turn 164] and Jason, even earlier, shared, “When people ask me if I am free . . . there are different types of ways to be free. Like you can be free from your mind or your church, or you can be free from slavery” [Turn 132]. Jason did not use the term spiritual yet did make a connection to church.


With these types of freedom on the table for consideration and the discussion beginning to wind down, Tina asked another complex question, encouraging her classmates to consider the relationships among these types of freedom.


235 TINA: Can someone be physically free but not really mentally, emotionally, or spiritually free?


In providing some closure to this discussion, Ruthie acknowledged the “awesome” work of the students and reiterated the importance of the questions posed by Aaron and Alicia. While Ruthie was doing this, Aaron said,


249 AARON: I want to ask you something.


Ruthie did not respond to Aaron (the class was already several minutes late for lunch recess), and we do not know what question Aaron had in mind, yet the statement seemed a fitting conclusion to this discussion. Aaron helped launch the inquiry with his question, and his statement here at the end indicated that other or similar questions (or perhaps the same question) remained.


DISCUSSION


Ruthie and her students were interacting within a particular kind of discourse space—a public space where students and their teacher have opportunities to share and examine different values, beliefs, and perspectives that can be brought to bear on a concept embedded in literature. The exploratory purpose of these interactions is in keeping with Parker’s (2006) definition of seminar discussion in which participants seek “an enlarged understanding of the text and one another (p. 12). Next we consider implications for using an epistemological pathway metaphor to understand dialogic discussions and to prepare teachers for engaging students in them.


EXAMINING PATHWAYS FORGED DURING SEMINAR DISCUSSIONS


If “enlarged understandings” are the intent of seminar discussions, it seems important to examine them carefully to understand what transpires in terms of the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing. This study demonstrated that using an epistemological pathway metaphor offers a way to understand the complex and fluid web of meaning that students and their teacher coconstruct, and the navigation practices that the participants enact as they engage in a dialogic discussion. We saw that the students and Ruthie forged a path that allowed them to explore the concept of freedom in some depth. They used connections to their lives and literature to examine how diverse opinions and experiences shape perspectives of freedom and considered how freedom can be understood as different types in terms of laws and legal rights, as well as states of being (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual; see Figure 1). They also used two external sources—the dictionary and the Freedom Train text—to try to make sense of the concept, and they demonstrated some awareness that their limited experiences (due to their age) might influence the extent to which they could construct a deeper meaning of freedom.


We also saw that the navigation practices that Ruthie and her students enacted were closely linked to the complex and fluid knowledge that they were coconstructing. Questions initiated by students opened up rich opportunities to explore the concept of freedom. Ruthie’s additional questions pushed their thinking to deeper levels and prompted explanatory reasoning. Students showed that they were listening to one another’s ideas by referring specifically to them, and they were willing to disagree or express conflicting viewpoints. As discussion facilitator, Ruthie valued and built on students’ ideas and treated these ideas and questions as text to explore. She also managed turn-taking throughout the lengthy discussion so students would know they would have the chance to participate (see Figure 1).


We contend that this pathway embodies the principles and ideals of dialogue (Burbules, 1993) and discussion (Parker, 2006). It also aligns with an “evaluativist” epistemological perspective, in which ideas and assertions are examined with argument and evidence criteria in mind (Kuhn, 2003), in ways central to the cultivation and sustenance of an informed, critical citizenry. According to Habermas’s (1984) theory of communicative action, understanding another’s point of view and learning to live with contingency and contradiction are fundamental to the workings of democracy (Brookfield, 2005). Because dialogue is “directed toward discovery and new understanding, which stands to improve the knowledge, insight, or sensitivity of its participants” (Burbules, p. 8), it aligns with Habermas’s theory, and it embodies principles and emboldens a vision of the school becoming what Dewey (1899/1964) called “a miniature community, an embryonic society” (p. 303). In these communities, participants don’t merely learn abstract lessons that are remotely connected to their future; rather, they wrestle with the complexities of public life more directly.


The epistemological pathway metaphor also includes a useful temporal dimension. It helps situate the view of the path from the beginning point (e.g., how a teacher “looks ahead” or envisions the trajectory of a discussion toward a more or less well-defined destination). The metaphor also helps illumine what transpires during a dialogic discussion as participants explore and debate ideas, construct or revise understandings, and possibly draw tentative conclusions. This is the forging of the pathway that happens in the “real time” of a discussion. An epistemological pathway can also be viewed from the vantage point of the journey’s end (whether the end is considered to be one discussion, a series of discussions, a unit of study, and so on). It can be viewed in terms of a “looking back” as the travelers (students and teacher) make sense of their trip and treat their own statements and ideas as text to be examined. In this sense, the travelers further construct and come to understand the pathway not only during a journey but also after traversing their route. Ray (2006) referred to this as the teacher taking an inquiry stance in which the curriculum is repositioned as


the outcome of instruction rather than the starting point. In this particular set of practices, the noticing and questioning that students engage in around the gathered texts determine what will become important content in the study (the teacher doesn’t determine this in advance), and depth rather than coverage is the driving force in the development of this content. (p. 239)


PREPARING TEACHERS TO LEAD DIALOGIC DISCUSSIONS


Earlier we pointed out that educators experience many challenges in cultivating discussions in classrooms. These challenges include managing a variety of structural forces (e.g., standardization of curriculum and assessment practices, teachers’ lack of experience and training with open-ended discussions) and learning to reconfigure the balance of power between teachers and their students. The fact that Ruthie was a first-year teacher trying to enact a complex practice should not be overlooked and raises the question as to how she was able to facilitate a discussion like this.


Recall that Ruthie had made note of her students’ difficulty in asking questions. Based on this attention to what her students brought to the learning content, she made it a priority to support students to “wonder,” ask questions, and know how to work to answer them. We infer that this priority reflects a belief that knowledge is fluid and complex and students must learn to be actively involved in coming to know or understand the content they are wondering about. This stance about the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing seems to be a key starting point for any teacher who is interested in learning to conduct seminar discussions. Believing that students are capable of engaging in serious inquiry is another important factor.


Therefore, along with exploring with novices what dialogic discussions have to offer, examining examples of actual discussions in which students engage seriously with important ideas seems essential. This can be done through reading articles that share transcript excerpts, or examining videotapes of actual classroom discussions. As we explained earlier, the epistemological pathway metaphor provides a focus and structure for examining the nature of knowledge that is coconstructed and the teacher and student practices that support that coconstruction. This could include attention to the ways that teachers create spaces for discussions that allow differing epistemological perspectives to surface—absolutist, multiplist, and evaluativist—along with how teachers might guide students (and how students might guide peers and their teacher) toward practices of intellectual inquiry emblematic of an evaluativist perspective. For example, in Ruthie’s classroom during this one discussion, some students’ responses suggested a multiplist perspective, in which knowledge is equated primarily with personal preferences (e.g., all students in class would have different definitions and ideas about freedom), yet the questions posed and pursued by the students and Ruthie maintained a commitment to evidence-based reasoning, indicative of an evaluativist perspective. Preliminary analytic work could be followed by having novices try out and document (through audio recording or videotaping) their own practices, pinpoint areas for further growth and development, and engage in follow-up inquiry. Close analysis of the purposes of discussions and the practices associated with working toward designated aims could help raise novices’ awareness of the challenges and give them some strategies for developing their pedagogy.


QUESTIONS FOR FUTURE STUDY


The study raises questions about how dialogic discussions can and should fit within the overall curriculum. In Ruthie’s classroom, dialogic literature discussions, with this discussion providing a particular spark, were part of a longer term whole-class exploration or “curricular conversation” (Applebee, 1996) about freedom and slavery. The discussions led to inquiry projects,3 along with a poetry unit, which investigated contemporary instantiations of child slavery and racial profiling, among other socially complex issues (Damico, 2006). The inquiry projects, which the students completed in pairs and small groups, point to questions about how different participation structures might enable or shape a particular epistemological pathway. How is a pathway forged during small-group or partner work? In what ways might students move fluidly between student and teacher navigation roles when the teacher is not part of a discussion? Which of these practices, if any, are most difficult for students to enact?


There are also questions about subject matter. All subject matter is not the same in terms of its fluidity and complexity (i.e., there are some commonly accepted ideas and facts). What different pathways might be forged when subject matter is less open-ended than exploring a concept like freedom? Although we believe that a teacher’s stance can communicate to students that they still need to ask questions about sources and justification even when the content is less open ended, further examinations of a range of discussion types and topics will help us gain more nuanced understandings of how subject matter and practices intersect (and how teacher and student roles are navigated) across a variety of topics and subject matter.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS


This class discussion took place (and all data were collected) several months before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, whereas the bulk of our analysis and writing occurred after this date. Freedom—along with democracy, citizenship, patriotism, community, and many other concepts—has long been a highly politically charged term, with politicians and citizens alike wielding it, whether it be through vacuous rhetoric or direct action. This term has had particular effervescence during the time of our analysis. Since we began working on this article, we have witnessed freedom being defined on Capitol Hill through the Patriot Act (mostly in terms of how it restricts personal freedoms, though also, somewhat paradoxically, how it protects personal freedoms), through the U.S. Department of Defense program “Operation Enduring Freedom” (i.e., the military “campaigns” in Afghanistan and Iraq), and even for a time through cafeteria menus in the House of Representatives, which renamed French fries as “freedom fries” in protest of France’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This has made us more aware of curricular and instructional possibilities in which children and youth could examine more systematically how the discourse(s) of freedom in our country and in the world function. The students in Ruthie’s classroom extended their dialogic encounters with freedom through small-group inquiry projects that investigated topics like racial profiling and child slavery (Damico, 2006). We see this as a key step toward engaging more explicitly and more deeply in macro- and micro-level critiques of other political and social discourses of freedom in which questions about the responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to live in a democracy remain entwined with goals and practices of schooling (Dewey, 1916).


In education’s current sociopolitical context, we believe that keeping visions and enactments of dialogic discussion in mind grows ever more urgent. The findings from this study point to this, suggesting that dialogic discussions remind us that classrooms can be “locations of possibility” (hooks, 1994) and help us see children and teachers as intimately involved in the exploration and construction of knowledge, especially about topics like freedom, a kind of work fundamental to developing an informed, critical citizenry.


Notes


1. All names, including the authors, are pseudonyms.

2. After introducing the text, Freedom Train, into the discussion [Turn 153], Ruthie explicitly asked students six times for text-based evidence to support their responses. This is not insignificant. One danger of exploratory or dialogic discussions is that they can stray far from a teacher’s subject matter goals, with students possibly posing and exploring authentic questions, yet going off on tangents during which other students and a teacher can get lost and frustrated. By guiding the discussion toward Freedom Train, Ruthie focused the students’ learning on the literature, an experience that they had all shared. This corresponds to findings from Nystrand et al. (1997), who concluded in their study of eighth and ninth graders that “discussion and authentic questions unrelated to literature had a negative effect on learning” (p. 33). These moves are also consistent with Rosenblatt’s (1938/1995, 1978) concept of response to literature as a personal transaction between reader and text, with both making contributions to meaning. There is, of course, a corresponding danger when a teacher redirects conversational flow away from whatever students are discussing and to a text. As many teachers, including ourselves, know all too well, this move can stultify a conversation, leaving silence and a group of frustrated students in its wake. Ruthie, however, seemed to strike a balance between following the students’ lead and maintaining an emphasis on the text, Freedom Train. Her move to the text in this discussion served to support the students’ general inquiry about whether freedom could be defined, and it provided an opportunity for them to extend their understanding of Harriet Tubman and Freedom Train. It was also an opportunity to see that multiple sources can be drawn on for evidence to support a viewpoint or suggest a new question.

3. Work on the inquiry projects also included several deliberation discussions, the primary purpose of which was to choose a course of action (Parker, 2006), in this case, decisions about how to best represent their learning (e.g., create a multimedia CD, a Web site, and so on; Damico, 2006).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 5, 2009, p. 1163-1194
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15240, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:07:31 PM

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About the Author
  • James S. Damico
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    JAMES DAMICO is assistant professor in language education, Indiana University, Bloomington. His interests include inquiry-based teaching and learning, reader response theories and practices, culturally responsive pedagogies, and working with digital texts and technologies. Some of his recent publications are articles in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy , the National Reading Conference Yearbook, and Children’s Literature in Education, along with several book chapters in edited collections.
  • Cheryl L. Rosaen
    Michigan State University
    CHERYL ROSAEN is associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and a faculty team leader in a 5-year teacher preparation program. She teaches courses in literacy methods and teacher education, and she conducts research on learning to teach literacy, and the role that technology can play in supporting teacher learning. Recent works include a coauthored book, Coming to Critical Engagement: An Autoethnographic Exploration (2006), and publications in the Handbook of Research on Teacher Education: Enduring Issues in Changing Contexts and the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education.
 
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