I gave students a writing task yesterday. The task is to respond to an article written by a Vietnam veteran, Tom Carhartin, which he expressed his opposition to the design proposal selected for the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, the wall that currently stands in Washington D.C., soon after the selection was announced. This is a copy of the Tom Carhart article . Students worked on a quick outline of their ideas yesterday. Today, I am giving them the opportunity to discuss their thoughts in a discussion. A discussion is a very important component of the writing process because talking about the ideas floating in their head and agreeing/disagreeing with each other is key in helping students clarify and develop their ideas, which is in line with the Common Core.
I explain to students that they are participating in a whole class discussion today and that it is a good opportunity to test their ideas, which will help them develop their response to Carhart’s argument. I provide this list of things I’d like to see in the discussion, which I leave on the board. This is not the first time students participate in a discussion like this, but I still want to remind them of some of the things that make for a good discussion. In this document titled “One Method of Holding Academic Discussions” I explain how I set up large group discussions. I follow every step of this process today except I do not divide the class into two groups. All students will form one large circle and will hold a discussion for the larger part of the period.
I give them a couple of minutes to gather their thoughts. I ask them to look over their outline and to decide on one point and one question they can bring to the discussion.
Once students are seated in one large circle and I have a word document with all their names open on my laptop, I invite any of them to start the discussion by posing a question or sharing an idea and the discussion begins.
Students begin to discuss the color of the wall. Some wonder why Maya Lin did not choose a brighter color and others defend her choice. You can hear this exchange in this recording of today’s discussion. They also discuss why only the names of the dead are included on the wall and one student suggests that the Three Servicemen is a good representation of those who came back alive and this prompts a series of comments that agree and disagree with this. I eventually have to push them to be more specific about the design of the wall and of the statue. This is because students have been doing a good job of expressing their opinion but not backing it up with evidence. If I don’t address that now, this issue may be a big problem in their essays. For instance, students have expressed their opinion that the statue seems to be more capable of drawing in war veterans than the wall, but have not explained why. I have to ask probing questions like, “What is it about the Three Servicemen that you think works so well for the viewer?” This is one student’s response.
I also prompt students to make connections to The Things They Carried. They openly wonder what they can bring up from the novel. In other words, they are not able to figure out how O’Brien’s work is related to this topic. I have to explain that the characters are soldiers who came back from the war and I ask them which monument would speak more to them. Several say the wall would speak more to them though some still believe the Three Servicemen works better as a memorial for Vietnam Veterans.
We end the discussion with me asking if anyone has changed their mind about the position they are taking on Carhart’s argument. A few students said they have changed their mind and explain why.
I want students to make immediate use of the information they shared and heard in the discussion so I give them the rest of the period to add to their outlines and to begin drafting their response.
Before they get to work, I direct their attention to this list I have on the board of things to keep in mind for their essay, which is written next to the list of “what we want in a discussion.” The first and third points are self-explanatory. I do have to say more about the second point. I explain that this is simply reminding of the fact that this design is meant to work as a memorial, as something to remember the veterans of that war, and that Carhart did not think the wall would fulfill that important role. For the fourth point, I simply have to add that they must also access what they know about the statute and to remember what they came up with when I asked them to imagine what they would experience if they were to stand in front of these two monuments. Finally, I point out that the last point on the list of things “we want in a discussion,” the one stating that all the different sources they are to use for evidence, must also be considered part of the things to “keep in mind for your essay.” With this, I let students write in silence.