Harkness Demo

One of the first classes that new ninth graders have at Exeter is a demonstration of a Harkness class, with twelve seniors and an English teacher discussing a poem or short story. The ninth grade English teachers have been putting this on for several years, and it is a memorable experience for the students observing the class.

Here you see the ninth graders entering and sitting in the theater. The seniors who have been selected for the demo are around the table. In this photo they have just been given a very short story and are reading it over for the first time. (They are busy people – so having them commit just to the hour, not to extensive preparation, was the idea here.)

Then the ninth graders viewed this “surgical theater” Harkness class. These seniors were, indeed, hand picked as good participants, so I didn’t anticipate anyone being silent, nor overly dominant. But they still had some of the messiness and circuitousness of any discussion. Even these hand-picked seniors confronted: How to deal with two people speaking at once? How to keep a thread going? vs. When to begin a new idea? and agreeing/disagreeing/seeing things differently. The ninth graders picked up on all this and were pretty amazed by the poise with which the seniors handled the class.

The next day I visited a ninth grade English class where they debriefed the experience of watching the demo. First I want to note HOW this teacher structured this debrief (because, to be clear: this is their first discussion and the text for this discussion was the demo itself.) The homework had included writing a paragraph on the demo.

This teacher broke them into groups and asked the groups to:

  1. Introduce themselves again to each other, and read their paragraphs aloud to each other.
  2. As a group decide: In observing the demo, what rose to the top of your observations in terms of Harkness values? (Pick 2)
  3. As a group decide: In observing the demo, what rose to the top of your observations in terms of Harkness skills? (Pick 2)

I could overhear one group and caught a few interesting tidbits (keep in mind this is what the ninth graders stated to each other in a small group about the senior class they had observed):

  1. Everyone seemed really engaged. They cared about the poem and each other’s ideas about it.
  2. They were having fun, there was laughter.
  3. Everyone had a chance.
  4. There seem to be “unspoken rules” of how to deal with two people speaking at once, how to tell who wants to speak.
  5. Every idea was taken seriously.
  6. Quantity of comments didn’t seem so important – a student with just a few comments might have a major point that changes the conversation.
  7. No one was trying to prove he or she was right.
  8. They referenced the text a lot.

With that groundwork laid, (and everyone having participated already) they came back together. What I heard back in discussion:

“I’d bet that if the teacher was late or something those students could start and carry on a conversation all by themselves.”

“Even kids who were sort of leaders…they made room for everyone.”

“Was I the only one who noticed that at the end they were all really happy? They almost invited disagreement to push along the discussion. No one really wanted to win.”

“They went into topics I never thought of when I read the poem. I think it’s because they know to annotate so well.”

“One person couldn’t come up with all these ideas themselves.”

“My sister (who is a senior) was annotating a book she was reading for pleasure on vacation this summer. I asked her why and she told me, ‘You can have a better conversation, even with yourself.'”

“You need to learn how to annotate for discussion, not just because you are confused or whatever.”

It seemed to me that these were some pretty astute observations from seeing just one class. And the structure of the debrief essentially used the demo as the text for the discussion. These ninth graders were actually already modeling what they observed from the seniors as they discussed the seniors – with no specific coaching from their teacher. They were ready to dig into their first discussion of a short story for the next day.

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