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In The Round

In The Round

With a diameter of 11 feet—large enough to seat 16 comfortably—the round tables used in all Upper School English classes dominate the rooms. But they are more than just pieces of furniture. They are vehicles through which connections are made, ideas are challenged, focus is sustained, and collaboration occurs. The tables are as integral to USM’s English classes as Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, or Angelou.

The round table pedagogy at USM works like this: Teachers assign a reading, students read it, and they all meet back at the table to discuss what they read. “Everybody comes to the table having read the same work,” said Kate Gay, Upper School English teacher, “but they leave with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the literature as a result of the discussion.” Conversations are rooted in the text, not in students’ opinions of the text, which results in more sophisticated reading comprehension. The books are intentionally chosen by English faculty to represent a wide variety of characters, situations, viewpoints, geographic locations, points in time, and religions. Teachers are constantly evaluating the curriculum to ensure that the texts yield fruitful, invigorating conversations at the table. 

The discussions are different depending on the grade level and class makeup. Freshmen, for example, first learn the basics of having an intellectual conversation, such as connecting classmates’ names with a comment and speaking without raising their hands or interrupting. They may only have the stamina for a 15- or 20-minute discussion, in which the teacher is actively participating. As students progress through Upper School, they gain confidence in expressing and defending their own ideas. By the time they reach the end of senior year, students are able to engage in, and sustain, an hour-long discussion with little to no input from the teacher. They are receptive to others’ ideas, able to propel and redirect (when necessary) the flow of conversation, and know how to embrace silence as core to discussion.

Students sit around the Harkness table and discuss a book.

Kate Gay, Upper School English teacher (top of the photo), led a discussion about the book "The Round House," by Louise Erdrich.

“When you’re having a conversation and two people start talking at the same time, who speaks?” asked Emma Keuler ’20. “Who doesn’t? What is the etiquette around that? How do we make sure everyone has a voice? In all of my round table classes we got a lot better at navigating conflict over the course of the semester or year.”   

By closely discussing books with their peers, students are learning literary techniques like foreshadowing, symbolism, and metaphor; expanding their vocabularies; and understanding elements of structure and plot. Mastering these devices ultimately helps to improve the students’ own writing. Teachers also incorporate journal writing in their class periods, often leading with a question that invites students to ponder what they discussed at the table, and sometimes inviting students to read what they wrote out loud. Not only does this further cement their knowledge of the reading, it allows students to gain constructive feedback on their writing. 

While students are reading closely and understanding the importance of an author’s word choice, phrases, style, and structure, they’re also learning how to collaborate with others, how to grapple with difficult subject matter in a way that’s civil and productive, and how to be comfortable with ambiguity. “I remember getting into a debate with another student about an excerpt from ‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer,” said Luke Brotherhood ’20. “It was one of those moments where we just had to agree to disagree, and it reaches far beyond English class. In life, there are so many times when there is no right or wrong answer, but you have to find a middle ground while still respecting others.”

At its core, learning at the round table promotes community. Teachers begin each school year by developing trust and open-mindedness at the table, because they know that real, academic rigor will not happen without an established community. At the table, students are respected and trusted because they, in turn, trust and respect their peers. “We sometimes have moments of discomfort at the round table,” said Danielle Goldstein, Upper School English teacher and English department chair. “But teachers see that as a good thing. We can’t grow as humans if we are not also willing to feel some discomfort. It’s good that we’re getting to those points with students and pushing through them. I love when that happens. That’s a good day of teaching.”

Kate Gay, Upper School English teacher (top of the photo), led a discussion about the book “The Round House,” by Louise Erdrich.

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