The Power of Talk and Class Discussion

One of my professional goals this year is to provide my students with as many high quality opportunities to talk to each other as I can. To allow them to engage in deliberate, academic conversations. To show their thinking through discussion and purposeful talk.

I always feel like it’s a risk because I never know what they are going to say. It’s a matter of letting go of control, and trusting and teaching my students to speak thoughtfully.

Easier said than done (for me to let go of control – not for them to engage in thoughtful discussion), but I continue to try.

I first saw this new Burger King commercial when it lit up my twitter feed a few days ago. It’s gotten a lot of press and interest because its anti-bullying message resonates with kids and adults, and it’s impossible to argue that bullying is anything but bad.

I wanted to show the ad to my high school juniors because I thought the message is spot on. It’s a funny, heartwarming, and in moments, tense commercial with a clear, positive message. Plus, it compares high school juniors to Whopper juniors. That’s funny.

I started class with an excerpt by Eric Luper from an NPR book review of the book Dear Bully by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. I first read aloud the excerpt which describes a fifth grade boy who is blindfolded with his hoodie by some “cool kids,” and then tied to a fence inside some tennis courts. He first allows the hazing ritual because he wants to become a part of the in group, but soon realizes that he has signed up for more than he wants.Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 6.43.39 PM

The narrator had remembered what it was like when he was recently the targeted victim of this group, and keeps reminding his audience that he is glad that it’s not himself who is the target anymore.

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There was a noticeable silence and inhale of breath in my classroom when I was reading the tense moment towards the end, when we don’t know if our narrator is going to rescue the helpless victim or not.

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This short piece set the tone for viewing the Burger King commercial. We watched it together and students responded predictably and appropriately. They laughed when the man in the kitchen “bullied” the Whopper Jr by smashing it, and then at the confused customer responses.

They were tense when the bigger boy poured soda on the smaller boy’s tray, and there was a small sigh of relief when the nice lady in the booth intervened and tried to make the bullied boy feel better about himself.

In the end, my students thought it was a nice commercial with a thoughtful message, and many of them felt they could relate to it.

I asked them to respond using the Book Head Heart framework we’ve employed a few times, the one that is found in Disrupting Thinking.

There were some thoughtful table discussions, and then some thoughtful whole class discussion. This framework is one of the best discussion starters I have ever used in my classroom. Many of my students focused on the heart portion of the framework, which totally makes sense. There is a lot of emotion in the ad.

When I asked them to think about the three modes of persuasion/rhetoric: logo, pathos, and ethos, they increased their level of thoughtful discourse, and participated in some deliberate talk.

As I circulated the room, I heard some conversations about the comparison that was being made in the commercial. There was some confusion, and while students generally liked the message of the ad, they had some questions about its method. Some rumblings about burgers not being the same as people.

But then class was coming to a close, and the clock prevented us from furthering our discussions.

However, it got me thinking about the ad. At first, I had accepted it at face value – I had appreciated the message, and wanted to talk to my students about methods of advertising, along with providing a quick and relevant reminder of the definitions and application of logos, pathos, and ethos.

But this power of classroom talk, the value of student voice, empowered my students to ask questions that I hadn’t considered.

It led me to teaching points during our next class that I didn’t anticipate when I first introduced the two texts. We talked about logical fallacies, and specifically, false analogies.

My students were able to push back on this well-received commercial, and apply academic vocabulary to their thoughts.

Some of them said that while they think the intended message of the commercial is anti-bullying, the ultimate goal of Burger King is to sell burgers. But that the goal of the commercial is to raise awareness and spread the idea that bullying is bad, that bystanders can intervene. They were torn.

What they could agree on is that the commercial made a faulty analogy. The people who stood up for the Whopper were actually standing up for themselves. They had purchased a specific product, and that product was faulty. They weren’t concerned about the well-being of the burger; instead, they were standing up for themselves. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just not the same thing.

Because of the workshop model, because talk is valued, because student voice is such an integral part of this framework, students led us to an entirely different conclusion than I had planned or anticipated. It was better, and it was deeper thinking.

No, a person isn’t analogous to a burger, even when the label “junior” is attached. But we all decided that the anti-bullying message is valuable, and we were all relieved when the woman with the glasses and the man in the red shirt intervened and made the victim feel validated.

We recognized the power in advertising. And I recognized the power of productive talk.

Follow Julie on Twitter @SwinehartJulie

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Talk and Class Discussion”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Julie! I showed the BK commercial yesterday as well and we had a great discussion afterwards. I will share your students’ response with my class today and use this as an opportunity to discuss logical fallacies. Thanks for sharing the great work you are doing in your classroom!


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