Co-generative dialogues

This school year has been a mess for me. It’s been full of isolation, questioning myself, and faceless students. I haven’t handled it well. Despite all my apathy, though, there has been one bright spot for me: co-generative dialogues.

Last summer, after I reread For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin, I began thinking seriously about co-generative dialogues. If you don’t know, a co-generative dialogue (or cogen) is a structured conversation between teachers and a small group of their students (~5) with the goal of improving the classroom community. These reflective conversations happen outside of class and result in a plan of action to better the classroom. The students of the cogen should be a diverse, representative group, consisting of a good mix of races, genders, achievement levels, and membership should change throughout the year. I’ve been keeping the same students in the cogen for 4-6 weeks before cycling in different kids.

I read Emdin’s book years ago, and I remember thinking that cogens were a great idea, but I also feeling like they were too “out there” for me. With everything I was already doing, cogens seemed like a bit much. They were too purposeful. I mean, I felt comfortable with my teaching. I had strong rapport with my students, they respected me. My class was enjoyable. Why did I need to have formal conversations with my students to know how to best teach them? Couldn’t I just survey them? Or use the results of my semi-annual teacher report card?

If I’m honest with myself, looking back, I don’t think I was mature enough as a teacher to embrace cogens. I wasn’t prepared to amplify student voice that was critical of my teaching. In many ways, I don’t think I was ready to relinquish the status I have as the teacher in the classroom. Subconsciously, I thought the answers to my pedagogical questions had to emanate from me (or colleagues that gave me them). My ideas, my methodologies, my strategies, were central. I had instructional know-how, but I didn’t get that students often know what’s best for them. I invited them to the table as students, but not as decision-makers.

And that’s what cogens do. It creates space for my students to be owners of our classroom. I don’t think cogens create student agency as much as they unlock it. Cogens tap into the inherent expertise of students, both as young people and learners. Galvanized by this line of thinking, Emdin, and all the unpredictability that lay before me with remote learning, in September I made plans to have weekly co-generative dialogues this year. They were going to help me survive.

After spending some time getting know my students and letting the school year set in, I started my cogens in October. So far, I’ve had 13 of them. Each one has had 1 or 2 students from each of my four Regents-bound classes. We meet for 30 minutes every Friday (those are our school’s “flex” days). To show that I value their time and energy, all cogen students receive extra credit. (Points are our currency, right?)

Like I said, I’ve been admittedly pessimistic this year, but my cogens have been wonderful. They’re insightful, honest, and invigorating. Over the course of our dialogues, my kids have helped me to:

  • restructure how I assign and collect work from them
  • model scanning work for the class
  • rethink breakout rooms using the preassign feature in Zoom
  • create a participation structure for whole class discussions
  • reform how I grade quizzes
  • discover a way to make group quizzes work for remote learning
  • create videos to explain challenging problems

At the beginning, I was concerned that we might not have enough to talk about at the cogens. A colleague who did cogens before me shared this sentiment (thanks Paz for the talk). But as I got more comfortable with the discussions, I discovered more specific questions to ask the kids about our week in class. Finding patterns in our class became instinctual and naturally led to questions about the bigger picture. Usually, my queries and the resulting discussion were simply reactions to what they told me. We were problem solvers. I followed them.

Before I started the cogens, I figured they would be valuable, but editing our class through the eyes and ears of those who are actually experiencing it has been even better than I imagined. As my closest advisors this year, the students at my weekly cogens have been a lifeline of critical feedback. Theirs is the type of nuanced, lived-in feedback that no adult has ever given me — or even would be able to give me. When we talk, I’m learning from them. There’s a level of vulnerability that I operate in during our talks that I really appreciate.

Having these structured conversations has also kept me grounded. We interact as equals. They’ve kept me plugged into the student experience at a time when black squares on Zoom are all I have. And we talk about the class a lot, but we also go off the record and just check in about the week that was. These types of casual exchanges are rare these days. By the time our co-generative dialogue ends, I’m always filled with more humanity than when it started. And because they happen on Friday, the cogens are a great close to my week.

At this point, I’m convinced that cogens need to part of my teaching moving forward. In thinking about next year, it warms me to think about recreating my cogen for in-person learning. I imagine us sitting in a circle, however socially distant it might be, going and back and forth about our class, working to ensure that it is a communal space, aligned with all our experiences and needs. And because the precarious transition back to the classroom will be full of nontrivial decisions on how we move forward, leaning on and listening to my students through my cogens is going to be as important as ever. I can’t wait.

Though I’m convinced of the worthiness of these small-scale dialogues to transform the classroom and position students as decision-makers of their own education, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if other teachers — at my school, at least — had co-generative dialogues with their students. Instead of being a one-off with their math teacher, what if students were invited to be part of cogens in every class? If cogens became routine, if students were actively relied upon by their teachers to improve pedagogy and instruction, if teachers went beyond clichéd surveys to lively, in-depth dialogues with those we serve, what would it mean for our students and their learning? What would it mean for our school? What would it mean for teachers?


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For further reading on co-generative dialogues (for me):

5 thoughts on “Co-generative dialogues”

  1. Can you say more about the 7 things that the students have helped you get better at? I’m particularly interested in the videos of challenging problems.

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