Oct 142007
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

I wonder how many times you leave class thankful that you are a student?

My guess is you leave classes thankful that the class is over. My guess is such because not many classrooms are conducted in a way that gives way to positive interaction, or any interaction at all.

The traditional classroom interaction is the human at the white board steps into the classroom spouts out information. The students follow the notes printed out from RamCT, or write some of their own. The instructor stops the lecture. The students leave.

Even in classroom where discussion, questions and the retelling of opinions and experiences are invited, students are reluctant to add to the dynamics of the classroom.

I believe you have it within your power to create a positive classroom climate, with or without the instructor’s guidance.

A month ago, I heard a story about a Chinese monk. His name was Geshe Ben Gungyal. The story goes that whenever a negative thought would appear, he put a black stone on the ground in front of him; whenever a wholesome thought was generated, he put a white stone in front of him. At the end of the day he would add them up.

When I heard this story, I immediately thought of the issue of classroom interaction. The vision of students with a cache of white and black stones entered my mind.

Instead of wholesome and negative thoughts that I would like to gauge, the image I generated would be positive and negative interactions in the classroom.

I am sure you leave the classroom every day and never think of the hundreds of interactions that take place in a single session.

Think about the way that the instructor addresses his or her students. Think about the way the students interact with each other or with the instructor. Think about the discussions that take place and what goes on inside of each individual’s head as the class plays itself out from beginning to end.

I would like you to think about these seven challenges of communication that would allow you to leave the classroom at the end of each day with a heap of white stones on your desk. Think of both the instructor and your peers as the co-facilitators in the classroom.

White stone one is listening more carefully and more responsively – acknowledging the feelings and wants others express – compassionately allowing people to feel whatever they feel (which sets the example for others to hear & accept your feelings, too).

White stone two is explaining your conversational intent and inviting consent by using conversational openers such as, “right now I would like to take a few minutes and ask you about [subject].” The more important the conversation, the more important it is to know and share the overall goal.

White stone three is expressing yourself more clearly and more completely – giving your listeners the information they need to understand your experiences. One good way is to use “the five I-messages”: what/how I observe, feel, interpret/evaluate, want and hope for.

White stone four is translating your criticisms and complaints into requests and explaining the positive results of having your request granted – doing this for both your own complaints and the complaints that others bring to me.

White stone five is asking questions more “open-endedly” and creatively. An example is “How did you like that movie?” This type of open-ended question invites a wide range of answers. “Did you like it?” suggests only “yes” or “no” as answers and does not encourage discussion. (How do you feel about this suggestion?)

White stone six is thanking those with whom you communicate. Expressing more appreciation, gratitude, encouragement and delight.

In a world full of problems, look for opportunities to give praise. In the classroom, it is the bond of appreciation that makes relationships strong enough to allow for problem-solving and true learning to take place.

White stone seven is making the effort. Making better communication an important part of your everyday life by seeing each conversation as an opportunity to grow in skill, awareness and compassion and turning each opponent into a learning and problem-solving partner.

It is my hope for you that every time that you leave the classroom that you have a gathering of white stones in front of you, and in your heart, and that your black stones are safely hidden away, never to be seen again.

Anne Marie Merline is a professor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com. The communications skill explained in this column can be found at http://www.coopcomm.org/workbook.htm.

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