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Talks with pupils about performing art productions

How to talk to students about art and culture productions? In this article Beate Børresen talks about tools and techniques for a well-structured conversation and explains how this can contribute to greater interest and participation from students. Such conversations can also result in valuable feedback on productions, for producers and performers.

Beate Børresen is an associate professor emerita at the Faculty of Education, OsloMet. Børresen is a magister of the History of Ideas and has worked in teaching for 30 years. For the last 20 years she has worked specifically on philosophy with children and conversations in the classroom. She has been involved with The Cultural Schoolbag in Norway since 2005, among other things through creative conversation material for various productions.

Conversations for feedback and immersion

A well prepared and structured conversation about art and culture productions can contribute to a lasting impression and provide a good basis for thoughts and experiences.

Such conversations have several objectives. They should provide feedback on the students’ experience of the production and be a chance to develop and expand on the experience as well as lessen any sense of alienation towards unfamiliar artistic expressions. A conversation should therefore be an integral part of what’s presented to the students. Such conversations can also strengthen cooperation with the school system by tying art productions to topics and questions the students are working on.

In addition, the conversations can inspire teachers who want help with methodology regarding orality and critical thinking. Conversations with students can be difficult, but can be done well through preparation, structure and a few simple tricks. The structure and tricks presented here, are intended as advice.

The following advice is based on years of experience with conversations in a classroom setting. The idea is that the advice can be used to help develop your own style/method.

Following the provided structure and tricks to the letter can be helpful to start with, in order to make it work. As the teacher becomes more comfortable with the structure and contents, it will be easier to adapt the material according to their own wishes.

Conversations in science and pedagogy

Conversation has been an important method in science and education since ancient times. Because we often cannot reach an answer alone, it’s necessary to work together by sharing ideas and understanding and develop these with other people. In pedagogy it is essential that the students are not merely passively receiving the teacher’s knowledge but participate in their own understanding and learning. To learn, students must reflect. In order to reflect, they need to formulate what they know, think, understand and don’t understand. This is best done through talking – to and with other people. Such conversations have their own form, characterised by a plan, concentration, research and leadership. This separates them from regular conversation, where you exchange views and discuss them. The point is to utilize the differences and disagreements between the participants to dive deeper into and untangle what’s difficult or unclear. Such conversations are often called explorative or learning conversations.

Conversation structure

This type of conversation is characterised by structure and leadership. The goal is to engage all the students and help them go beyond plain exchange of views. Because it’s clear what the students are meant to do and why, it’s easier for them to focus and get more out of it. For this to work optimally the conversation should be prepared, both with regards to content and form.

What the structure looks like:

  • The students are introduced to an assignment in the form of questions they need to answer or statements for them to consider, with reasoning. The assignment should be on a piece of paper, with room for them to write down answers.
  • Give the students a set amount of time to do the assignment.
  • Choose one student to start the conversation and ask that person to read their answers and reasoning.
  • The student reads their answer and reasoning and the conversation leader writes it on the board. Read more under “Deciding who should speak”.
  • Everyone should consider the validity of the reasoning or if it can be improved upon. The students are not supposed to say whether they agree or disagree with the reasoning but explain why it is good or how to help improve it, for example by altering words or using examples.
  • When the first contribution has been developed, choose another student and repeat the process.
  • The conversation is finished with a meta-conversation – a conversation about the conversation – where the students answer questions like «What have we learned?», «What was difficult?», etc.

Alternative

If you want the students to mention things that were good, exciting, bad, or similar as they do the assignment, their answers can be collected separately. This is useful to collect the students’ assessment of the production.

  • Choose a student to start the round by reading their answer, for example something good. Write the answer on the board, under the headline «What was good?».
  • The student next to the first one continues and so on, until everyone has answered. Avoid repetition of what’s already on the board, instead have the student say «Pass» or «Same as [student name]».
  • Next round, for example “What was bad about the experience?, move back the other way, starting with the student that ended the last round. Read more under “Deciding who should speak”.

Before the conversation

The conversation is improved with preparation. A plan to lean on helps the conversation leader feel safe and it’s easier to engage the students when the assignment is thoroughly planned out.

How to make assignments

  • Decide if the students should focus on giving feedback on the production or analyse the content.
  • Choose what you want the students to look into, or which themes are prominent in the production.
  • The questions/statements should be clear and concise and preferably should not contain words like «not» or «could» and should otherwise not be leading.
  • Questions requiring a yes/no answer with reasoning work the best. Statements that require the students to agree or disagree and explain why also work well. Such assignments make it easier to start a conversation by tallying up the yes/no or agree/disagree answers. At the end you could also check to see if anyone changed their mind and thus liven up the discussion a bit.
  •  The assignment should be hard enough that the students need to think about their answers and have a chance to give their own feedback, also negative ones.

Examples:

  • What was good about … (name of production)?
  • What was bad or could have been better?
  • What did you learn? Include an example.
  • Write down something you heard for the first time or saw for the first time.

Examples of statements based on certain themes:

  • Boys are stronger than girls.
  • You always know when you’re in love.
  • You have to like your brother or sister
  • Can you know what someone else is feeling?
  • How do you know what is right?
  • Are rules needed to know what is right?
  • Children should listen to adults.
  • Trees shouldn’t be chopped down.
  • Peace is the absence of war.
  • Theatre is art.

Put the questions/statements on a piece of paper with room for answers. Read more under “Log sheet”.

How to make a schedule

  • Usually a lesson lasts 45 to 60 minutes. Set up less time with the younger students.
    Read more under “Small children”.
  • Set up how much time you think should be spent on each point.
  • Keep the schedule and a watch in front of you during the conversation.
  • Use the time wisely. Don’t make the introduction too long, just introduce yourself and tell the students you want them to help improve the production.

Work methods or techniques for the conversation

The intention with these techniques is to get more and better feedback than what usually comes out of a more spontaneous question-and-answer session. The methodology will help more students speak up and create potential for more diverse answers.

Log sheet

The questions for the students should be presented on a piece of paper with room to write. Such a paper is called a log sheet because it’s set up in accordance with the conversation. It helps you structure and keep a log of the students’ work. When the purpose of the conversation is to get feedback from the students, a log sheet works particularly well. It gives you insight into thoughts and ideas that are not presented during the conversation, as you can collect and go through the written answers afterwards.

How to make and use a log sheet

  • Write the production name and the date at the top.
  • Separate everything into sections with subheadings that follow the conversation structure:
    1. Question
    2. Question or Statement
    3. Time for answers – and for tallying up, if there are yes/no or agree/disagree answers
    4. Conversation
    5. Meta-conversation
  • Write down two to three questions/statements. Put in just a few lines per point, for writing answers, thereby encouraging students to write short, clear answers.
  • Feel free to include «Yes/No, because…», «Agree/Disagree, because…» with every relevant point, to help students express their thoughts.
  • Add 1 to 2 meta questions with one line for answers per question/statement.
  • Give each student a log sheet.
  • The students should not put their name on the paper.
  • Read every question/statement out loud and ask if anything is unclear. Explain any misunderstandings or other questions about the assignment.
  • Give the students a little time to think about the questions. Read more under “Time to think”.
  • Finally give the students another set amount of time to answer the meta-questions. Explain that there are no «right» answers to these, that they’re supposed to write down what they think or believe.
  • If there’s time, go through the meta-question answers from each student. What’s most important is that the students write down their answers so they can be read afterwards. Read more under “Deciding who should speak”.
  • Collect all the log sheets at the end.

Meta-question examples:

  • What have we learned?
  • What did we learn about?
  • What was difficult?

Time to think

clear thoughts and you will more easily remember what you were thinking. This also makes it possible for more students to express their thoughts out loud. When you write something down it’s easier to talk about it. Collective time to think also ensures that all the students are engaged in the assignment. It also encourages greater diversity in what’s presented, as the students are reading out their own thoughts, to a lesser extent following each other’s example or saying what they think you want to hear.

Keeping the thinking time short helps emphasize that they are not supposed to provide «correct» or «perfect» answers, but rather express thoughts and musings.

  • Give clear instructions on what the students are meant to do as they think about the assignment.
  • Be clear about how much time they will have to think and when this time starts.
  • Time the thinking period.
  • Finally, ask if anyone needs more time. If so, give them max. 30 seconds to finish.

Deciding who should speak

When the time is up and alternatively after tallying up yes/no or agree/disagree answers, the conversation is started by having one student read his/her answers.

  • The student should be randomly chosen, for example by using dice. There are dice with as high numbers as 12, 20, or even higher, these can be purchased from gaming shops or online.
  • For this to work, each student needs a number. Have them memorize or write their number down. If there are more students than numbers on the dice you can start from the top, giving some students the same number. That way either both students get the chance to speak at one time or it goes to the one that has spoken less or has something important to say.
  • A round of counting also works as a warm-up, engaging all the students and letting them use their voices.
  • Roll the dice – the number indicates which student gets to start. The student reads their answer, preferably just a few words. The leader writes it on the board and the student beside the first one gets to speak next. Repeat until everyone has spoken.
  • Avoid repetition of what’s already on the board, instead have the student say «Pass» or «Same as [student name]».
  • The next round starts with the last student who spoke.
  • If there’s a third round, roll the dice again and repeat the process.
  • Only use the dice after giving the students time to think.
  • An alternative to using dice is to pick notes at random with each student’s name.

The students should of course also have the opportunity to raise their hands or be asked by the leader to speak. The latter particularly if a student’s body language indicates they have something to say, disagree with something, or similar.

Blackboard/whiteboard notes

Writing text on the board helps everyone remember it. This is essential, as what we want is the experiences, opinions, and advice of the students. Writing it all down also makes it easier for the students to stay on topic. The leader can point to something on the board and ask «Are you talking about this?», «Do you have any examples of this?», «Who agrees with this?» and so on.

Writing down what is being said, helps acknowledge the students’ thoughts. You show them that what they express is important. Many will feel braver by having their words written on the board, it’s a way to confirm that it isn’t «wrong» or «stupid».

  • Write the conversation topic and the date on the board. This makes it easier when you need to go back and look at the information later.
  • Write down what each student reads out, as well as the other students’ reactions to it. You can also include the names of the students in parentheses.
  • Don’t erase things if someone changes their mind or something changes. Rather cross it out. This allows everyone to follow and remember the development of the conversation, what was agreed upon and what wasn’t, what was improved, etc.
  • Take a photo if you need to erase something to make space for more.
  • If there are two leaders, one can write on the board while the other leads the conversation. Alternatively, ask the teacher for help with this.
  • If you tally up yes/no/agree/disagree answers, write the number underneath or next to the question/statement.
  • Write things exactly how the students say them. Don’t rewrite or use abbreviations.
  • If you are developing a student’s answer further, write comments, objections, examples, etc. by the original statement. Lines and arrows can be used.
  • Remember to take a photo of the board. If you let the students see you do this it helps them feel like they are important. And having this photo of the board helps remind you of what the students said.

How to engage the students

Not everyone can have the floor during a conversation that lasts around 45 minutes, except if you collect individual words or statements in rounds. Nevertheless, everyone should be engaged.

  • All the students are engaged by doing a written assignment in the set time.
  • Let the students show their stance after the thinking-pause by standing up. First, those who agree with the statement or have answered yes to the question stand up. The number is written on the board. Then, those who disagree or have answered no do the same. 
  • The students can also show their stance by moving to stand by different notes. Make two or four notes, depending on the number of students and the complexity of the production. Stick them on the wall or on the floor. General statements can be written on the notes, such as «[Production name]/[something in the production] was funny», «It was boring», «It was interesting», or more specific statements related to events or themes.
  • Select some students to explain why they are standing where they are.

Young children

In this context, young children are students defined as children between the ages of 5 and 8. At this age most of them will have trouble concentrating for long, listening to one another, as well as writing and reading.

  • The conversation will therefore need to be shorter and go faster. In total about 20 minutes, with thinking time of maximum 30 seconds.
  • It can be helpful to split up the class and have the conversation with half the class at a time. In that case it should be split up at random, not just «good» students chosen by the teacher.
  • The conversation leader needs to use fewer words and shorter explanations.
  • The students need to be able to move around as described above, but pictures or single word/short phrases should be used.
  • Even though the students are not able to read much it’s important to write what they say on the board. First and foremost, for it to be remembered, but also to highlight the importance of what the students say.

Vocabulary cards

These are cards with pictures, drawings or one to two words. Both the pictures and words can be general. It can be words like «good», «funny», «boring», «strange», etc., or concern events and themes in the production.

  • Make three to five cards and show them to the students. Explain what they represent or read the words on them.
  • Spread the cards on a table or on the floor, where everyone can see them.
  • Give the students some time to think and find a card that says something about their thoughts.
  • Use a dice to select a student to start.
  • The student chooses a card and explains what he or she was thinking or how it relates to the performance.

Follow-up

  • Write down what the students have said, and your own impressions and thoughts, as soon possible after the conversation.
  • Review the photos of the board and the log sheets.
  • Consider which exercises engaged the students the most, if something should be clearer, be expressed differently, skipped entirely, etc.
  • Consider your own leadership during the conversation. What worked, what didn’t?
  • Make lists of what should be changed for next time, both regarding to the contents on the log sheet and the conversation leadership.
  • Remember that not all conversations will go well. There can be many reasons for this, such as the students being tired or unaccustomed to conversing with each other, as well as not being attentive enough or managing the time. It’s important not to lose heart.
  • Assignments that work well in one class, may not work well in another.

Project information

The Student Participation project was one of three sub-projects in “The Cultural Schoolbag in schools” development project (2018-2020) and was initiated by Art for Young Audiences Norway (Kulturtanken). One of the project's pilot initiatives aimed to develop a method for conversation-based evaluation and feedback on Cultural Schoolbag productions. Collaborating partners were the Cultural Schoolbag administrations in Viken, Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, Rogaland, and Asker, under the leadership of Gustav Jørgen Pedersen and Bente Aasheim from Kulturtanken. 

Beate Børresen was engaged as a lecturer in the initial phase of the project. After meeting with Børresen, the collaborating partners wanted to use her work as a basis for their further development. Børresen was thus involved in the project as a mentor.  

The Evaluation and Feedback Tools for Cultural Schoolbag Productions describe the collaborating partners' experiences in planning and implementation, and provide advice for others who want to try it. It is recommended to read both Børresen's article and the tools sheet.  

The project has also developed additional resources for the method, including a film and a professional article about assessment in schools. Both are available on Kulturtanken's resource pages in Norwegian.

Publisert: 23.02.2023 Oppdatert: 26.01.2024 kl.14:03