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What is “authentic conversation?”

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

It’s probably time for a working definition of what we mean by “authentic conversation.”  Authentic conversations on Youth Voices grow out of these foundational principles:

  • an individual student should follow his/her passions and vital questions
  • a student should seek to become a member of a small community of like-minded explorers
  • a student needs to adopt the stance of a researcher, constantly finding other voices to include in his/her own writing.

These principles help us move students toward the kinds of “authentic conversation” that we can sponsor for them on Youth Voices. We hope that you and your students will join us there soon. Perhaps another example, beyond the suggestions in the introduction to this piece would help paint the picture of what these principles look like in the classroom.
 
Shantanu Saha, a teacher at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, Queens, NY (BSGE) describes a moment when he began to understand how Youth Voices might work “to drive forward a curriculum geared toward giving students the ability to reflect on topics of personal interest.”

One of my students, Carmen M, wrote her post about teens being sexually active. This became one of the most popular topics on the site (it still ranks in the top 10), and generated a lot of attention. From this I learned much about my student, who had sat most of the year in my class without saying much. Indeed, I had thought that she did not have much to say and was disinterested in school. I learned that through persistent, quiet encouragement, I could get students to come out of their shells and express themselves online. 

It’s in Shantanu’s description of Carmen’s post, “Why are teens being sexually active if we are being educated about it more than those in the past?” where we can begin to define why this was a moment of authentic conversation on Youth Voices. Shantanu writes:

I admire the candor and emotion she expressed in her post. She had really found a voice, and it came through with enough force that it demanded that the students who responded do so in kind. The whole thread reads to me to be much like a conversation that kids would have normally out of the earshot of teachers and parents, dealing with weighty issues and discussing or resolving matters themselves.

 

This is why we have Youth Voices, to have students create such voiced discussion posts that their peers have no choice but to talk back in passionate and thoughtful ways. And when voices from research are included as well, isn’t this what we mean by academic writing? On Youth Voices our students are writing for real audiences and they are speaking with engaged voices. They are doing scholarly work with peers and experts within a particular branch of knowledge, and their conversations are enriched by sourced, linked, quotations from ongoing research. That’s what we mean by “authentic conversation.”

Another example comes from one of Madeline Brownstone’s students, also from BSGE. “There was a conversation about Dracula vs. Twilight,” Madeline writes:

My 10th grade classes were reading Dracula in English class, and many of the kids (girls especially) were consumed with the Twilight series of books (and especially the Twilight movies). I asked students that first day to write about a book they have read. Jaymee C. used the opportunity to make a “text-to-text connection” between the book she was obsessed about and the book she was forced to read in class. The implicit conflict between the two books embodied by the title of the post soon caught the attention of most of the class, and soon there was a merry online discussion raging over the relative merits of the two books.

This conversation wasn’t confined to one time or place. It took place online in the last weeks of school one June, got picked up in the fall, and continues to this day. Madeline noticed a pattern in the early posts:

Interestingly, the conversation seemed to divide among gender lines, with the girls in the school defending Twilight against the boys, who seemed by and large ready to extol Dracula over Twilight. The girls similarly seemed ready to put down Dracula and promote the merits of Twilight. While not the stuff of high-level lit-crit, it did get students to talk about the writing in the books themselves, which I had been laboring (and usually failing) to do in face-to-face discussion about books, in advisory.

Madeline also noticed a difference when students from outside of her school joined the conversation:

Very curiously, there were several posts that sought to balance the merits of the two books. All of these posts came from students outside of my school. Students from the other schools, coming into the conversation without established relationships with the opposing gender factions, were much more inclined to avoid taking a side on the issue.

Students on Youth Voices are relatively free to roam about, and to concern themselves mostly with topics that genuinely strike their interests, rather than simply satisfy a school requirement.  Because their posts concern things that the students find important, the writing reflects their passions, it contains deeper and wider reflection, and it can provoke more varied responses from many sources and viewpoints