A Seat at the Table

By: Bishop Walker, History Teacher

The Harkness model of teaching and learning is about collaboration and respect, where every voice carries equal weight, even when you don’t agree. Read more about Field History Teacher Bishop Walker’s summer professional development experience and how he has implemented this method in the classroom.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to experience and receive training on the Harkness teaching method at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. This method of instruction, known as the Harkness method, emphasizes a student-centered classroom rather than a teacher-centered learning environment. Students gathering around a table or in a circle provides a congenial space and builds dialogue in the classroom. In a Socratic seminar, students formulate ideas, build off each other, and create well-thought-out dialogue. Although this method is not new to Field, finding my way to this space and hearing success stories from other educators has inspired me and informed my teaching. 
The phrase, “A Seat at the Table," resonates and has been my motto for teaching this year at Field. Under the Harkness method, students are not called on to answer a question but rather encouraged to think critically about others’ comments. In modeling this manner of teaching, students bring a sense of curiosity to world problems. The exchange of ideas and philosophies and the courage to listen, inspire learning at the deepest levels. 

This year, I've had the opportunity to curate and teach the Civil Rights Journey class in preparation for the first Civil Rights Journey Intersession—a two-week immersive learning experience traveling across the South. A group of 16 students and three faculty members will retrace the heroic journey of civil rights activists as they travel through Alabama and Georgia (Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and Atlanta). As students visit historical sites and learn from historians, they will continue reflecting and learning about this vital period of American History. This experience is the ultimate definition of putting students front and center and giving them a Seat at the Table—a place to discuss ideas.

In this class, students are seated in a Socratic circle where they engage in evidence-based discussions around Dr. Martin Luther King's A Letter From A Birmingham Jail. Students discuss how King challenged clergy in that letter taking the position that faith and social justice must coexist. They also engaged in a lively discussion on Angela Davis' book Are Prisons Obsolete? Scholars led a discussion on the prison industrial complex in America using Angela Davis' writings as a reference. I have seen this model's positive impact on engagement and learning  when students open up, jump in on the conversation, and feel confident in sharing their thoughts 
about the topic and what others bring to the discussion. 

As I continue to reflect on the phrase "A Seat at the Table," I cannot help but ponder parts of James Baldwin's 1963 speech "A Talk To Teachers," where he states that a society is "about to perish" if citizens obey the rules with no push for change. The Harkness model of discussion at Field has made room at the table for students to be front and center in the learning process, push for change in communities, and recognize the power of debate in academia. James Baldwin also boldly states that for those of us who teach, one of our responsibilities should be in the business of empowerment and revolution. Discussion-based learning doesn't always happen organically. Instead, students learn to listen carefully, speak, and respect their fellow peers—building trust and forming community over time. Responsibility can go beyond the classroom, the School, or even the profession of teaching. Empowerment and revolution are not solely in the power of one person talking to a group of people, but in the power of discussions, an exchange of ideas from students of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and racial identities—where every voice carries equal weight, even when you don’t agree.

I invite all learners to have a “Seat at The Table” in classrooms, homes, and communities.