Use quotations to prompt discussion and/or writing

Here’s a class activity that’s easily adaptable to a variety of classrooms and disciplines. It’s a good way to spur discussion and encourage evidence-supported argument. The activity, which comes from Constance Staley’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, begins with the teacher distributing a number of quotations, each typed onto a strip of paper, to the students.

Staley gives a number of possible quotations to use, on such topics as education, self-understanding, and the definition of success:

  • “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Martin Buber
  • “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.” Perelman
  • “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Derek Bok, president Harvard University

…and so on. I can see the exercise working just as well, if not better, with quotations that directly apply to the course’s subject.

In Staley’s version, after handing out the quotations, the teacher goes around the room, calling on students one by one. Each student, when called on, must read her quotation aloud, say whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement, and then “identify two pieces of support from personal experience, course material, or other relevant information sources.” This can easily be modified for larger classes, either by breaking the students up and having the discussion take place among groups, or by turning the exercise into a writing prompt—each student must write a paragraph or two explaining why she agrees or disagrees with the quotation, and must support her position with evidence. In all versions, particularly if the teacher uses quotations tailored to course content, the exercise offers a straightforward way to allow students to take an active role in the learning process, and encourage them to construct arguments with proper support.  -DG

Source: Constance Staley, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. 120-24.