• May 3

What Viola Davis Can Teach Us About Preparing for Discourse

  • David Deatherage, Brendan Campbell

Viola Davis, a true icon of stage, screen, and most likely future EGOT winner, had this to say about her research and process before a scene:

Source: BAFTA

Ms. Davis prepares to listen. To respond. To use whatever her partner gives her to create the most authentic and transformative theatrical experience.

Engaging in effective discourse with students requires the same spirit of collaboration and preparation. Classroom discourse around a critical concept or productive struggle in a lesson allows students to “chew on the content” as Zaretta Hammond writes in Teaching from a Pedagogy of Promise. Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, writes that, “It is precisely this productive struggle that stimulates the brain to grow more dendrites and create new neural pathways that lead to more brain power to take on higher levels of work. This is the only path to higher order thinking.” How can we take cues from Ms. Davis—to support our teachers and students to chew on the content together, to listen and authentically react to one another during classroom discourse?

Keys to Effective Discourse

We’ve studied hundreds of hours of teacher video and research on discourse over the past few years to define the often subtle but profoundly effective moves a teacher makes when conducting discourse. We want to share one example from Emelia Pelliccio’s AP Physics classroom before the pandemic. As the clip opens, Emelia, the current Director of Science for Uncommon High Schools, brings the students back after the Do Now before launching into the task for the day.

As you watch, consider: What does Emelia say and do when engaging in discourse with students?

You probably noticed quite a few moves, both large and small, that Emelia makes during discourse, but we want to highlight a few. If you read the last Uncommon Sense blogpost on Desmos and watched the video of Lauren Masco, you might recognize there is a lot of overlap in how they both engage with their students.

Pull Quote: listening in this way can be liberating
  • Activates knowledge:
    • Emelia activates knowledge by asking students to recall a pendulum and other concepts taught previously. The requisite vocabulary and scientific concepts are activated before students are asked to apply multiple skills and concepts in a cumulative task.
  • Monitor the learning:
    • While students work independently, Emelia prompts students and gathers information on what students are thinking. Using this information, Emelia calls on students strategically to respond and build on the classroom’s collective thinking during discourse.
  • Problematize or sophisticate:
    • Emelia charts the students’ thinking as students share out, ultimately leading to the most profound moment of intellectual tension or productive struggle where students must reconcile seemingly contradictory ideas. She prompts at the precise moment where conceptual understanding converges, drawing out complexity and nuance to highlight and enhance student thinking.
  • Stamp in student voice:
    • Finally, students stamp the final key idea for the lesson in their own voices as they put the final “puzzle” together. This stamp at the end of discourse is the transferable conceptual understanding that enriches their understanding of the content and, hopefully, leads them to see the world of physics in a new way.

We love this clip of Emelia because it proves that great discourse is ultimately defined not by what we do, but by what our students say.

Download the Discourse 1-pager

We have developed a one pager that breaks down some of these keys to discourse and other learnings, all of which can be transferred across classrooms no matter the grade level or subject area. We are excited to share that one pager with you here.

Preparing for Discourse

By effectively preparing for student discourse that both anticipates and values the varied array of student responses, teachers can focus entirely on what students are contributing and how to develop a collective conversation towards a disciplinary big idea or takeaway.

Download the discourse preparation template

In other words, our preparation frees us to listen.

At Uncommon, we have distilled the keys for effective discourse preparation into a streamlined template that leaders and teachers can use before a lesson. We are sharing the tool here. The preparation template asks teachers to consider:

  • The ideal response,
  • The previous knowledge or schema that may need to be activated before discourse,
  • The keys to listen for as student engage in discourse, and,
  • The prompts teachers can use to deepen the conversation.
Pull Quote: Listening in this way can be liberating

In planning meetings, teachers and leaders work together to identify the productive struggle of a text, task, or lesson, ultimately planning side-by-side as they consider the permutations of student discourse that will lead to new discoveries and shifts in student understanding. This groundwork champions the intellectual life of our students, asking them to collaborate with each other and the teacher as co-creators of knowledge.

Listening in this way can be liberating.

Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote that, “The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech.” As teachers and leaders, we have the opportunity to engage in world building with our students through discourse, expanding the horizons of what is possible for our students and ourselves.

subscribe to Uncommon Sense

Click below for PDFs of all the resources referenced above:

Related Posts:

David Deatherage
Director, Leadership Development

David Deatherage

David has spent over a decade teaching, leading, and learning in the pursuit of an excellent education for all children. He has been with Uncommon for 8 years, holding many different roles throughout his tenure, and currently serves as the Director of Leadership Development. Prior to joining Uncommon Schools, David worked and led in schools across Harlem and was a TFA Corp Member in New York.

Brendan Campbell
Chief of Staff to the Chief Schools Officer, 9-12

Brendan Campbell

Brendan is the Chief of Staff to the Chief Schools Officer, 9-12. Prior to joining the CSO team, Brendan spent 5 years at Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School in Brooklyn, NY, first as a founding operations team member before eventually serving as the Director of Operations for two years. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Brendan first taught high school history at Southeastern High School in Detroit, MI before joining Uncommon.