“What about the effect of global markets on the Populists? Had the markets been better would farmers have been affected to the same extent?” asked Goran, leading off the discussion in history on the late 19th century agrarian revolt. A couple of minutes earlier, Goran had guessed the correct number and had “won” the opportunity to be leader for the day. The topic was Populism and the text was a chapter from Carl Degler’s Out of Our Past.
Kitt answered and immediately drew everyone’s attention to page 352 of the text, a passage about markets. Rosie chimed in and noted how little the struggling American farmer really understood about the economics of farming.
As I sat and took notes, it was hard to keep up with the students – Ellie, Simon, Marc, Marlo, Monique, and Jay Jay – as comment after comment reflected an incredibly deep and sophisticated understanding of a topic they had only studied for a couple of days. Try as I might, I couldn’t adequately capture the stunning ideas that were charging around the room like an electrical current.
The idea behind a student-led discussion is that the teacher is taken out of the process; the onus for a good discussion is placed firmly on the students’ shoulders. My role is to take notes and to jump in if the discussion veers off track (not an issue with this group!). The hitch is that there must be a rich, challenging topic, an outstanding reading or two, and – perhaps mostly importantly –a leader who is chosen randomly before the discussion begins. This ensures that everyone is prepared to participate fully.
Today’s particular discussion covered Degler’s entire long chapter in depth, and I think it was as satisfying to the students as it was to me. After 45 minutes or so, Marlo brought the discussion to a natural close with a strong observation about Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian American and it’s link to the farm movement. Throughout the discussion, I was reminded of great senior-level seminars I had participated in in college. Where else except at this school would students be so eager to engage, so ready to dig in, so willing to listen respectfully to others’ ideas?
– Scott Andrews, History Teacher