Table Talks—Literacy via Student-led Discussions

This middle school teacher has an idea that can greatly impact student learning—with students leading the way.

Imagine tables in the cafeteria of any school. Students from different classrooms and several grade levels are seated at the tables. Classes are mixed together. No, it isn’t lunch time. 

A moderator hands out a piece of text or introduces a topic of discussion. Half sheets of paper are scattered across the tables. Kids have access to as many as they might need. Pencils are provided. The moderator poses a question. Students are asked to reflect and write. Light instrumental music might be playing quietly, adding calm to the scene. Paper cups containing pretzels, fish crackers or other snacks are provided for all students. 

The older students have been coached. They jump right in—writing, reflecting, getting involved.  They model the expectation. 

Then, kids talk. 

About what?

Success mostly. The discussion starts with academics and stays with academics. What does it mean to read carefully? How is reading like detective work? What do we mean when we say something has a double meaning? Why do some people get A’s on everything? Does going to college matter? Why? Why not? What is an essay? How are they written? What is evidence? How is it used? Is writing important? Why? Does math really matter? How would you define science? What have you learned lately? 

These are Table Talks, and the list of topics and questions is practically endless. The only stipulation is that the discussion centers on academics, the keys to being successful at/in school. Of course, the discussion moves into life outside of school at times, which is fine (wonderful, actually), but the focus remains on the process of fostering meaningful communication about success. Kids think, write and share. The ones who are more comfortable can lead the way. Quieter kids may have great ideas to share, but writing might be their preferred medium. It is their time to talk—but only if they choose to. It’s all about student-initiated communication. As teachers, we do our very best to stay out of it, aside from a supervision standpoint. Occasionally (more at the beginning) we direct or coach, but the goal is for the kids to talk with each other. 

There are a number of benefits to this kind of student interaction, one of which is cooperative learning. Focusing cross-classroom discussions on how to achieve success in school helps introduce and expose students not only to multiple perspectives, but also to multiple teachers and circumstances. It also encourages kids to realize they can talk in places other than the classroom about the topic of success. Another benefit is the opportunity to honor students’ voices and their knowledge about school. As anti-bias educator Peggy McIntosh notes, “[Students] are authorities on schooling, but nobody asks them.”

The same research that supports Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day program applies here: Positive intergroup experiences reduce prejudice and improve intergroup relations. With Table Talks, students from different subject areas, grade levels, honors and "regular" classes are all brought together. The experience broadens students’ engagement—in topics that matter in school.

I am working with an art teacher at our middle school to get this process started. We want Table Talks to be a first step toward fostering a campus-wide emphasis on literacy. We both admit things will start small, but we also know anything worth doing must start somewhere. If this sounds uncomfortable, you know the potential for learning is huge. Are Table Talks a possibility at your school? Let me know in the comments. Maybe together, we can start something that truly impacts student learning.

Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.

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