Walking the Talk: The Power of Dialogue
by Jennifer Waldvogel
Ever experience one of those ‘aha’ moments that leaves you wondering how you survived without this POV? Like the first time you sipped a great cup of coffee or sat in the good seats at a sporting event, once you’ve experienced the breakthrough, there’s no going back to ordinary life.
As a teacher, that ‘aha’ moment was when I let go of conversation control, and dove into dialogue.
The Gift of Vulnerability
Twenty-seven students gathered in a large circle on my classroom floor, cool tile grounding the conversation we were about to have. Twenty-seven faces stared back at their English teacher.
“Today, we’re going to practice feeling vulnerable.”
Instantly, I could feel my students' nervousness. Vulnerable is an uncomfortable word, especially when you’re seventeen years old, surrounded by peers. But my students were also curious, and I was banking on that.
“We’ve been talking about the human condition. About the feelings and experiences we share as human beings. And today, we focus on vulnerability.”
I reached behind me for a clear Ziplock bag full of tiny strips of paper. “This bag is full of personal questions.” I paused, smiling at them, “Not deep, dark, secret kind of questions.” A few laughed, but they were hardly sold on the idea: they needed to see what this was all about. “These questions are just about you, about what you think and what you like. We’re each going to draw a question from the bag, read it aloud, and answer. You can pass once, but we’ll come back to you. I’m here with you, part of the group, and I’ll go first.”
That day in class, we focused on one person at a time. In our circle, we could see everyone and our conversation was a single thread. We discovered one another’s interests, friendships, and habits. We became closer as a classroom community. But we couldn’t have this conversation on the first day of class. And we couldn’t have it all without first building trust.
In the next few weeks of our World Literature class, we got to the good stuff, sharing thoughts about the big picture questions with no answers: What is truth? What is fair? What is beauty? I realized how much more exciting it was to watch my students in open dialogue than a carefully facilitated discussion. In that moment, I became a believer: in the battle between Dialogue and Discussion, dialogue is definitely the way to go.
Why should we engage our students and colleagues in close, connective conversations? Conversations like the one we had on the classroom floor are the avenue to dialogue, and dialogue is the ultimate goal for truly transformative communication.
The Case for Dialogue
Educators are strong discussion leaders. We know how to create engaging questions, connect students’ comments to one another, and keep a discussion rolling. But, do we offer our students enough chances to dialogue? As a high school literature teacher, all too often the talk in my class was a discussion with pre-determined questions and revelations to uncover. Our discussions had a goal, and in the name of text understanding, that was valuable, but if I wanted the learning to transform my students’ view of themselves and the world, what I really wanted was dialogue.
*Image courtesy of Sustained Dialogue Institute
Dialogue is open-ended. Dialogue seeks understanding without conclusion. Dialogue is a space to learn about those engaged in the dialogue, not just the text or idea behind the speakers.
Unlike debate, [dialogue] doesn't involve arguing for a point of view, defending a set of assumptions, or critiquing the positions of others. Unlike negotiation or consensus-building, it's not a method of reaching agreement or arriving at decisions. And unlike discussion, it can only emerge when participants trust and respect each other, suspend their judgments, and listen deeply to all points of view. (Scott London, 2021)
Setting the Stage for Dialogue
Good dialogue requires a layer of trust among participants. We can help our students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings by starting with activities to help them clarify their values. As they learn about themselves, invite them to share small revelations with their peers: first in partners, then small groups.
In our World Literature class, we started the semester with an Ideology Survey, began each class period with a Self-Awareness Journal Prompt, and just before our dialogue about aspects of the human condition, we engaged in the Johari Window. Practicing reflection was building the foundation we needed for the dialogue on the horizon. No matter how young our students are, they have the ability to uncover what is important to them, and practice sharing their opinions with peers, especially when we guide them through that journey. These reflective practices set the stage for the empathy and openness we need to engage in dialogue.
During the Dialogue
That dreaded silence: watching students squirm under the weight of a conversation dead stop can be hard, but we can help them work their way through this without taking the lead. One technique that fuels dialogue is reflexive noticing. Anna Pauliina Rainio & Riikka Hofmann (2021) describe reflexive noticing as “speech actions that avoid immediate closure, sustaining a puzzle, reflecting on it and connecting it to a need to change, in this way creating ‘a sense of the possible’” . We can help our students practice reflexive noticing during dialogue by first modeling this in our facilitated, whole-class discussions. When we repeat students’ comments that offer openness to a new idea, we bring attention to the value of open mindedness. Even the tiniest comment of wonderment or curiosity by a student can spark a connection among their peers and a feeling of “being seen”. After modeling in a whole group, allow students to practice reflective noticing in small groups. Start with sentence stems to help them find their words, encouraging students to slow down and really think about what their peers are saying. Listening and connecting are the goals, not arriving at a conclusion.
During a dialogue, interject when students need a reminder that every issue has multiple sides and every classroom includes multiple perspectives. A single individual can hold multiple perspectives. As facilitators, we can switch our role from discussion leader to dialogue supporter, giving students the reins for talk that focuses on making connections and arriving at a greater understanding of one another.
Dialogue isn’t just for our students. Dialogue is for ourselves. Whether our role is in the classroom, in the school, or at the district level, dialogue has the power to break down barriers and bring people together. In the divisiveness of today, I can’t think of anything better than conversation meant simply for understanding.
Anna Pauliina Rainio & Riikka Hofmann (2021) Teacher professional dialogues during a school intervention: From stabilization to possibility discourse through reflexive noticing, Journal of the Learning Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/10508406.2021.1936532
Illinois Literary in Action (2016). Collaborative conversation suggestions & sentence stems. ISBE speaking & listening kit.
Johari window model. https://www.communicationtheory.org/the-johari-window-model/Retrieved November 2021.
Scott London (2021) The power of dialogue: Creating common meaning and purpose. Scott.London. https://scott.london/articles/ondialogue.html
About the Author:
Jennifer Waldvogel is an NBCT who spent over a decade teaching ELA in Yorkville Y115 before shifting into the role of Teacher on Special Assignment for Technology Integration. This is Jen’s 5th year as a TOSA, working alongside students, teachers, school & district leaders to guide blended programming, design professional development, and coach personalized instruction. Jen loves hiking, foodie adventures, Key West, and music you can dance to. Writing is her favorite hobby. Jen is also a published author who blogs about life and career at jenniferwaldvogel.com. You can find her on Facebook (JenniferWaldvogelAuthor) and Instagram (@Jennifer_Waldvogel_Author).