I often help with crowd control in our school’s chorus class (90 students and one teacher), and this morning I noticed some interesting resemblances between what happens there and what happens during discussions in my English classes. The teacher was teaching the group about the different parts they would be singing in an upcoming program – bass, alto, tenor, soprano – and, as she talked and then led them in rehearsal, I thought about the different parts my students “sing” when we’re holding a discussion. In the chorus, each voice blends its own special range of sounds into the group, and in my class the students try to mingle their unique personalities and ranges of ideas into the discussion. One student’s qualities and ways of thinking are as different from another’s as a bass is from a soprano, and yet both the ideas and voices manage to mix together in unexpectedly agreeable ways. Somehow, all the voices in the teenage chorus – high and low, silvery and squeaky, unspoiled and coarse – make harmonies and tunes together, and somehow a similar surprise occurs, at least occasionally, in English class. Of course, this takes some work – sometimes prodigious work – on the part of the teacher. Our music teacher painstakingly trains her singers to sing their various melodies while at the same time staying aware of the overall movement of the song, and I suppose you could say I train my students to blend their talents together in a discussion. The music teacher wants to take full advantage of each singer’s unique voice and range, and yet still produce a single harmonious musical piece, and, likewise, I want my students to bring their inimitable personalities to the discussion, but to also work together to create a conversation that flows in a rich and mellow way. Watching the chorus class this morning, it occurred to me that training students to take part in an intelligent and graceful discussion might be every bit as tricky as training them to sing in harmony. Perhaps I need to “rehearse” discussion techniques with the students. Perhaps I need to be more specific in showing them, for instance, how a skeptical student’s comment can be blended in smoothly with a classmate’s optimistic ideas, or how some “bass” ideas can finally mix in a nimble way with a few “soprano” insights and produce a sweet finale to a discussion.
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