Early in December I had the chance to visit the classroom of Josh Mishrikey, a high school history teacher in a suburban Boston public school. Josh had attended the Exeter Humanities Institute in 2016 and we stayed in touch as I was eager to hear about how student-centered discussions played out in his classroom. His classes are on the larger side – often in the high 20’s – and he is one of the only teachers in his school teaching in this way. Josh used a technique that I have heard about from other teachers contending with large class sizes: the inner and outer circle. He assigned a group of approximately 14 students to be in the discussion for the day and roughly the same number to be seated outside the circle, listening and taking notes. When I have heard about this from other teachers they have often been dissatisfied with this arrangement because they sense the kids outside the ring are bored or checked out. They sometimes come up with various tracking or note-taking tasks for the outer ring, but they always feel like it is not nearly as productive as for those in the inner ring.
However, in observing Josh’s ninth grade World History class, I saw the outer ring as highly engaged. They seemed to be actively listening and taking notes. Maybe this was because I was there observing, I speculated. But there was also a component to Josh’s classroom set up that I had never seen before: an empty chair in the inner circle. Josh explained that any member of the outer circle could jump right in and make any comment on his/her mind, and then go back to the outer circle again. What a great idea! There was no particular reason to “check out” in the outer circle, because there was always the possibility to check in. Unfortunately, I did not actually see anyone taking advantage of the empty chair in this particular class. But I did have the chance to ask them about it and they were rather surprised themselves that they had not used it. They usually do, they told me. I also asked them more generally about their feelings being in the outer circle – why were they so attentive? They seemed a little perplexed by the question. Well, we’re being tested on the same material, they said. Another boy said, “It’s not that different from being on the inside, I mean most of the time you’re not the one speaking there either.” Yet another offered, “I actually listen more closely when I am in the outer circle since I am not so busy trying to come up with what I will say next.” These comments and my observations made me reconsider my assumptions about the inner/outer circle arrangement. And, as Josh reminded me, he was always going to have big classes. So if he wanted to teach with discussions, he needed to find ways to just deal with the sizes.
The empty chair idea has stayed with me since that visit. Not only as a specific technique for that class structure, but also as a metaphor. What might one more person offer to our conversation? What stone has been left unturned because that chair is empty? I think the empty chair is a great reminder to those around the circle of what an opportunity they have at the table to make their own contributions and the luxury they have to hear the contributions of all the others. The empty chair reminds us of our responsibility and the unexplored possibilities.