October 26, 2022
My years of facilitating discussion in middle and high school Humanities classrooms taught me to wince at the phrase: “I have a quote.” Just as bad? “My quote is on …”
Why? As veteran teachers know: nine times out of ten what follows was wince-worthy, indeed … an earnest student re-reading a quote from the text and then looking up at the class (as if to say: there! My point is made!) and then at me (as if to say: Did you hear me use that textual evidence? Do I get points for it?).
The worst part? Often, students don’t even add any editorial of their own, so “their” contribution to the conversation is actually just re-reading a text we have already all read. As with most Humanities teachers, I love an evidence-based argument, but the phrases “I have a quote” and “My quote is on…” always seemed to be harbingers for evidence without an argument. Enter today’s Discussion Dilemma: Quote-Dropping.
Phenomena like Quote Dropping ultimately inspired me to spend nearly a decade studying classroom discussion and why it matters in our tech-centric, polarized world. At its best, class discussions where every student feels heard and challenged—and in which students learn how to articulate evidence-based arguments—cultivate communication skills students need for learning and life. My hope is that in solving what may feel like micro discussion dilemmas—like quote-dropping—teachers can feel better equipped to prepare students to address macro challenges in today’s world.
Today’s discussion dilemma
How can teachers minimize “quote dropping” during discussions?
My answer: A Three-Pronged Approach
The first step to minimizing quote-dropping is to scaffold students in their preparation for discussion—and grade what at R.E.A.L. we refer to as “Quotes and Notes” independently from their discussion participation. This allows each student to rest assured that s/he will “get credit” for “having great quotes” even if s/he doesn’t say every single one during a discussion. I know one teacher who names this tendency before the start of every class conversation, reminding students that
“you don’t have to say everything you wrote down—I will read that and grade it separately, and the process of revisiting the text prepared you to participate today. Your job today is to show up and engage with each other, not just try to show me you did your homework!”
Having a specific method for and clear expectations around discussion preparation will also increase the rigor and inclusiveness of the discussion itself. All students will be prepared to dig deeper into the content because they will have revisited the text one more time! And critically: for students who are slow processors, managing anxiety related to participation, or simply struggling to get their voice in, preparing ahead of time ensures they will show up with something to say.
To help students avoid Quote-Dropping in the moment, you might develop scaffolding to help students know what to do with quotes—beyond just reading them out loud. These could take different forms—write them on the board, make posters, and have students write them in the inside cover of every book they read. These prompts should consider the how and what of effective use of textual evidence. For example, in terms of “how”—how do we want to reference authors, page numbers, and sources?; do we have a norm of all turning to the page where your quote is?; if you aren’t speaking, should you be annotating your text as the speaker speaks? And in terms of the “what,” I find that giving students go-to-questions to ask themselves to interrogate any passage is always helpful. These will be course specific, but some examples might be: what words stand out and why? What is the author’s intent? How might the original audience have received this? What am I learning about a character here?
It never hurts to run “post-game analytics” on a class discussion, but it can be an especially effective tactic to illustrate the impacts of Quote Dropping if necessary! When you feel a discussion turning to be especially quote-heavy, start to keep a tally of the number of “quotes” that are “used” (my guess is to be analyzed deeply!). Then, after discussion, write it on the board (e.g. 22). Then, ask students to guess what that number is (they love this part!). Once you eventually get around to it, divide the number of minutes in the discussion (e.g. 30) by the number of quotes used (e.g. 22). Then say something like: this means that for the last 30 minutes, someone introduced a NEW piece of evidence every minute and twenty seconds! Does that make for a good conversation? Other great tools for “post-game analytics” are Equity Maps and Parlay Ideas—though be forewarned that both tools can reward any use of textual evidence, so the nuance of an issue like Quote-Dropping can get glazed over.
The knee-jerk response
“That sounds way too … prescriptive, borderline clinical. I like leaving room for spontaneity—and for students to figure these things out on their own!”
Why it works
While I absolutely understand the resistance to prescription—especially in an exercise like a discussion that is so often associated with self-expression—it’s important to recognize how proactively defining success structures students to, in fact, succeed. With something like a discussion—which is laden with cultural expectations—the stakes are even higher. Joe Feldman, the author of Grading For Equity, writes persuasively about the value of “demystifying success” in order for all students to have equitable access to the potential to achieve it. While great conversation can certainly be spontaneous and generative, graded class discussion requires clear guidelines and an emphasis on basic skill-building—like explicit instruction on effective use of textual evidence—first.
This three-pronged approach should help you equip students to use evidence effectively—not just quote-drop.
Raising your students’ awareness of and giving them strategies for mitigating “quote-dropping” will not just improve your class discussions but also do wonders for their analytical writing. It might even give you a simple margin note (mine was “Nooo QD!”) to leave whenever a student happens to “drop” and forget to analyze textual evidence in a written paper. When students connect the dots between the verbal work they do in discussion and the papers they write, their intrinsic motivation for the former will skyrocket—hopefully, encourage them to bring their own editorial to any excerpt they use!
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.