Exploring Dialogue on Out of Eden Learn, Part 1: Appreciate and Probe

Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) is designed around three core learning goals. Across the different “footsteps” (activities) in our curriculum, we emphasize: slowing down and closely observing the world; exchanging stories/careful listening to the stories of others; and exploring how individual lives connect to the lives of others.

In developing an online community where students share their work, our intention was to connect youth living in different contexts, cultures, and parts of the world.  As I’ve discussed in a prior post, our hope is that youth will connect with one another on our platform in authentic, sensitive, and meaningful ways. Our community guidelines underscore this hope, especially in asking OOEL participants to adhere to the following principles: Be Yourself, Be Respectful, Listen Carefully, and Engage Thoughtfully.

As part of an effort to support youth in forging positive connections, my colleagues and I assembled a dialogue toolkit in collaboration with Chris Sloan (OOEL educator, National Writing Project teacher, and Youth Voices co-developer). Chris and I described our motivations for this effort in detail here. In brief, this work stemmed from an observation. In looking across the many exchanges between youth on OOEL, we noticed that most of them were positive and polite yet appeared superficial. We wondered: How might youths’ online conversations go deeper? What could we do to support youth to compose their comments in more reflective ways and to forge closer connections with one another?

The idea for a toolkit surfaced from our sense that online dialogue is particularly fruitful when participants are reflective about the moves they are making. Chris Sloan’s work with the online community, Youth Voices, and discussion of commenting as a “genre” was key here. Also essential was the work on thinking routines developed by our Project Zero colleagues.

The dialogue toolkit is a set of lean structures — short moves and routines — intended to support thoughtful and generative exchanges on Out of Eden Learn. You can view the full toolkit here. The six core moves are depicted in this photo.

six core dialogue moves pic

When we introduced the toolkit in the fall of 2014, we decided to bring it into the learning experience in a light, as opposed to heavy-handed, manner. When we ask students to “interact’ with other students in their walking party, we remind them of the toolkit and, for certain footsteps, ask them to experiment with one move or another. We’ve also designed visual icons into the comment box (see photo below) as reminders or nudges.

comment box pic

[Technical note: When mousing over a specific icon, a text description of the move appears as a reminder. The icons themselves are not clickable and will not appear in the comment box; it is up to the commenter to enact the moves in the text they write. In other words, if you wish to appreciate another person’s post, you have to write what you appreciate in actual words.]

What remains to be seen is the extent to which, and how, these reminders and suggestions actually support youth commenting on Out of Eden Learn. In the coming months, we will be investigating this research question in a deliberate and systematic manner.

My purpose in writing this post, and in two additional posts to come, is to showcase examples of six core dialogue moves from youth exchanges in OOEL. My hope is that this student work will help educators and students see how they can make the most out of the Out of Eden Learn experience. In this post, I highlight two dialogue moves: Appreciate and Probe.

Appreciate: Represented in the comment box by the familiar thumbs-up icon, the Appreciate move involves sharing what you like, appreciate, or value in the post you’ve read in a specific way. By asking youth to share what they appreciate in words, this move is intended to be a weightier, more meaningful version of a Facebook “like.” While we acknowledge that the “like” holds an important (and largely positive) place in the social media landscape, our goal with this move is to generate more specific expressions of appreciation.

Appreciate

Praising comments and other forms of appreciation are very common in OOEL student exchanges. Appreciations range from short and simple, “I like your picture/post” comments to more detailed discussions of how and why the picture or post resonated with the student.

  • Gigekty, a student from Shanghai, China, interviewed his mother for an OOEL activity. In his post, he shared details about the history of his ancient city. American-ish, a student from Pittsburgh, U.S. responded with a short, but specific comment about how he experienced the post: “I like how you wrote this, the way you write it really starts to build a picture in my mind. It is just like reading a book.”  
  • Longfranz, a student from Salt Lake City, U.S., expressed appreciation for the style of the post: “I like how you wrote this as a dialogue and used your mom to explain what your city was like. This ancient city you talked about sounds really cool, I would like to hear more about it.” Similarly, a student from Hebron, CT, U.S., said, “It’s really cool how you have a legend behind your town. I find that very interesting. I appreciate the way this was written as a dialog between you and your mum. Very unique and special!”
  • In his first post on Out of Eden Learn, Neverland, a student from Erbil, Iraq, shared an important perspective: “I live in a really beautiful city surrounded by people That I love, I know that most of you hear bad things about Iraq and I will not lie it is dangerous and bad out in Iraq but trust me Kurdistan where I live is really really fun.”
  • 0127Avy, a student from Beaverton, U.S., replied, “I really like the fact that you wrote that you know people think Iraq is a dangerous place and I agree because I hear it and see it on tv the whole time but I also know that not all places in Iraq are dangerous like they appear.” 0127Avy shows appreciation for the perspective Neverland brings, which complicates representations of Iraq seen in the U.S. news media.

The Appreciate move can appear on its own, but often it is coupled with other dialogue moves. For instance, 0127Avy “connects” with Neverland’s perspective. Probe is another move that often follows on the heels of an Appreciation.

Probe: Represented in the comment box by a question mark, the Probe move involves asking questions that help you learn more details or gain a better sense of another person’s perspective.

Probe

  • Arevik, a student from Yerevan, Armenia, shared a story about the formative role his grandfather played in sparking his love of reading: “For me one memory has very big meaning…I remember when i was a child my grandfather used to read many interesting books for me and i knew pages of stories in that books and it has very big influence in my further life, because it made me love books and learn very well.” 
  • In engaging with Arevik’s post, several students from Illinois in the United States expressed their appreciation for his story and asked a variety of specific questions to learn more. LScooper asked for more details on the kinds of books he read, in childhood and today: “What type of books did he read to you, and what books do you like?” MEcooper wanted to learn more about Arevik’s significant childhood experiences and memories: “Did it [this story] give you a certain memory that was important to you?”
  • Zora, a student from Shanghai, China, shared pictures of her city from the neighborhood walk activity. In her post, she said, “This is my hometown—-Shanghai. It is a beautiful place. In 1949 my hometown was liberated. Since then great changes have taken place there. The streets have been widened. Factories, schools, hospitals, cinemas and theatres have sprung up one after another. The life of the people is greatly improved.I love my hometown. All the more I love its people. They are working hard so as to make it still richer and more beautiful.”  
  • Vontayfarmer, a student from New York City, U.S., responded with an appreciation and some specific questions: “Dear Zora, This picture is really cool because you can actually see flowers blooming and the roads are so clear. I would love to see your neighborhood. Another reason I love this picture Zora is because when I first seen this picture it really grabbed me because of the flower colors and the big house. I wonder if the neighborhood you live in is bright like this in the winter.? Also why is there so many bushes??!.” In probing in these ways, Vontayfarmer seems to be seeking a fuller picture of Zora’s neighborhood and of life in Shanghai.

The Probe move is an essential tool for getting dialogue started, keeping it going, and fostering connections between students. By asking questions of fact and of meaning, youth can gain important insights into one another’s worlds. Thinking about the kinds of questions one is asking—and being deliberate about asking different kinds of questions— can support deeper answers and understandings. Additional support for the Probe move (and for other dialogue moves) can be found in the Creative Questions & Sentence Starts list. This list is designed to help students generate meaningful questions of different kinds. Examples include: “Tell me more about…”, “I wonder if…”, “I was surprised by….”, “What I found interesting was…”, “One sentence you wrote that stands out for me is…”, and “I learned from your post that…”

Expressing appreciation and asking questions are key avenues for connecting with others, both online and offline. In online conversations—where eye contact, tone of voice, and other bodily cues that help us interpret text are absent—greater care with our speech is warranted. Being specific in our appreciations and crafting meaningful, clear questions can generate richer exchanges on social media. In nudging Out of Eden Learn members to be reflective and intentional about these moves—and about their commenting in general—our aim is to support meaningful exchanges and connections.

In forthcoming posts, I will explore four, additional moves from the dialogue toolkit: Snip, Reflect Back, Connect, and Extend. In the interim, we invite your comments, suggestions, and further examples of how youth are talking with one another on Out of Eden Learn and beyond.

2 comments

  1. […] As my colleague Carrie James’ recent blog posts about our dialogue toolkit show (click here and here), there is a great deal we could be doing to support students’ interactions – and we still have […]

  2. […] been impressed with the generosity with which young people listen to the stories of other people, taking care to ask thoughtful questions and to check their understandings and assumptions. We have watched young people develop their […]

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