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Cogenerative Dialogues As a Tool for Healing

You’re probably already doing it. Now, do it deliberately.

Levy meeting in a circle with eight students
Meeting with my students

(with many thanks to Brian Palacios)

I first encountered the term “cogenerative dialogue” in 2017 when, as a brand new teacher, I read Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Prior to my teaching career, I inhabited relatively privileged, predominantly white spaces: a New Jersey suburb, an Ivy League university, and two hedge funds. As a new teacher, I was excited to share my love of learning with my students, but I was also well aware that I knew nothing about their experiences, values, and motivations. If I wanted to empower my students then I needed to understand them first. Understanding starts with listening. When we structure and systematize the way we listen to students and we iterate towards a better classroom, it’s called a cogenerative dialogue (or cogen). It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. Hosting cogens and leading professional development around cogens have been transformational experiences — and also very little has changed. Here is my journey.

Although I’d been conducting cogens for years, I really defined “cogen” for myself when Brian Palacios (his blog is a must-read) and I co-facilitated a professional learning community at Math for America this winter. In asking ourselves what a cogen is, we broke it into two questions: (1) what is the purpose of a cogen, and (2) what does a cogen look like in practice?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward: our goal is to learn from/about/with our students in order to change the way we teach, which will in turn enable our students to reflect and engage and for the cycle to continue. The premise here is that students are not vessels to be filled but rather humans with unique values, abilities, and interests that we must understand in order to grow together.

Defining cogens as learning from/about students in order to change teaching practice
How I think about cogens

It was a bit more nuanced to determine what a cogen looks like in practice. According to Christopher Emdin, “The most successful cogens look and feel like hip-hop cyphers” with “a small group of four students who meet with the teacher weekly.” The “meetings are held ‘in secret’ and not shared with the rest of the class…[students are] special advisers of a ‘secret board’ that in essence controls the class.” This definition evoked some questions for us:

  • How loosely can we define the “look and feel like a hip-hop cypher”? And what if our students don’t connect to hip-hop cypher culture?
  • Why must cogens take place outside of class time, and with only a small group of students?
  • Do cogens really need to be kept secret? What if a student who’s not in the “club” finds out and gets jealous?

I wondered: how did researchers before Emdin define “cogen,” and which aspects of Emdin’s definition did they consider imperative versus optional? A colleague pointed me to this 2006 article by Sonya N. Martin, which defined cogens in a broader way than Emdin’s book:

Cogenerative dialogues are a form of structured discourse in which teachers and students engage in a collaborative effort to help identify and implement positive changes in classroom teaching and learning practices…Cogenerative dialogues involve two or more people coming together to talk about a shared event or experience (LaVan, 2004).

Martin also cited Wolff-Michael Roth and Kenneth Tobin in that 2006 article. I ultimately traced the use of the term “cogenerative dialogue” back to two sources from Roth and Tobin in 2002: this article (with Andrea Zimmerman — and also note that “Robin” is a typo on their site; it’s actually “Tobin”) and this book (chapters 7 and 8). In their research, Roth, Tobin, and Zimmerman discuss cogenerative dialoguing as part and parcel of co-teaching and co-creating a classroom space with students. A particularly resonant claim from their work is that there’s no such thing as an outside observer in the classroom. Everyone in the room is part of the dynamic and changes the dynamic, and thus has an obligation to help shape the collective experience. (This runs counter to the way that teachers are traditionally assessed, which is by an administrator who sits silently in a corner of the room, watching and taking notes without participating.) These early articles show teachers and students engaging metacognitively about the learning experience itself both during class and outside of class time.

Prior to 2002, the only instance I could find of cogenerative dialoguing in the literature was from outside the world of education: in this 1991 book, William Foote Whyte used the term “cogenerative learning” for a process to help workers become more empowered and productive on the job. As far as I can tell, the term “cogen” that we now use in the classroom came from managers engaging with workers on the job. That said, I am not a professional researcher: please comment below if you know more of the story!

Timeline / visual history of cogenerative dialogue
History of cogenerative dialogues

When Palacios and I set up our professional learning community, we debated how to classify whether an interaction with students would “count” as a cogen. Palacios pushed me to think about non-examples of cogens. If a teacher gives a survey to students asking how their year is going but then doesn’t talk about the results with them, is it a cogen? We decided no. If a teacher spontaneously asks a student how they’re doing and then ends up talking for 20 minutes about their life at home, is it a cogen? Probably not, we said. We needed to define some clear parameters to ensure the term wasn’t adopted too loosely.

That said, Palacios and I also didn’t agree with all the restrictions in Emdin’s text. For example, we didn’t want our cogens to be kept secret from other students. My students are already shut out of so many spaces: I was hesitant to create a secret cogen club that only six students could join, the rest left to catch wind of it later and to wonder why they weren’t good enough to be invited. (I did actually try the “secret club” approach once, despite this concern, and it played out as I feared. I had to do a lot of damage control, explaining to students that I’d chosen a mostly random cross-section of the class and it said nothing about them that they weren’t invited, but they never fully believed me.)

Ultimately, in our professional learning series, we decided we can call it a cogen if it’s deliberate and sustained, moving us towards a better understanding of our students and a more meaningful school experience for them. We created the diagram below to map out the space of interactions that would be included.

Matrix with horizontal axis WHAT we learn about our students and vertical axis HOW we learn it
Our agreement about what “counts” as a cogen

This framework for cogens is rigorous but also invites flexibility. Here are five (very) different cogens I’ve done with students over the years:

1. Pregaming and post-gaming units. This was my very first cogen, inspired years ago by a professional development series at the school where I teach. I met with a set of six students from across my class periods, deliberately chosen to include some who felt competent in my class and some who didn’t; some who liked talking and some who were reticent; etc. I shared my unit plan for the upcoming unit of study and asked students (a) to react to the essential questions — and to add their own, (b) to share resources or real-world connections they wanted to see brought into the classroom, and © to look at my planned assessments and propose alternative ways they may want to be assessed on our learning targets. After we finished the unit of study, we debriefed as a group over lunch: did it go as planned? What are our takeaways for upcoming units of study this year? And what should I change when I do this same unit of study again with students next year?

2. Pregaming a lesson and training student TAs. I meet with students who seem disconnected in my class. I share the next day’s lesson and ask them to help me make it more engaging. I also ask them to act as teaching assistants during the class, now that they know what we’re going to be learning.

3. Discussing knowledge and research in our content area (STEM). As an editor of the Underrepresentation Curriculum (URC), I use the URC lesson plans to help my students understand how people from marginalized groups experience STEM communities, and why it’s a problem if STEM institutions continue to exclude their important voices. Students question their experiences in school (“When and why did I decide that I wasn’t a math person?”) and resolve to make a change (“If more people like me worked in AI then maybe facial recognition would be less racist”). The academics may say this doesn’t count as a cogen because these conversations are in-class lessons, conducted with 30 students during class time. But I consider it to be a cogen: I learn about what matters to my students and why; it’s deliberate and sustained because we return to the conversation each month or so, and it enables me to change the way I teach the rest of my course content to be responsive to student needs.

4. Analyzing school culture and making change. After attending a workshop by Altagracia Montilla, I realized the importance of getting students to critically assess whether their school building was meeting their needs — and then decide what to do about it. I asked students in my classes to complete Montilla’s survey, including Likert questions such as “I feel comfortable talking about my race, ethnicity, or culture with my teachers” or “The teachers and staff are interested in getting to know my family.” Students completed the anonymous survey on paper and then tabulated their own results, practicing making histograms in the process. They then synthesized the results, compared the aggregate responses to their own experiences, and decided what to do next — be it writing a letter to the principal, helping me connect more with their parents, or asking me to advise a new club.

Histograms produced by students analyzing their own survey results
Histograms produced by students analyzing their own survey results

4. Reflecting on the institution of school. I love asking students why they go to school. Most of the time my high schoolers tell me it’s the law, or their parents will be angry if they don’t go, or they go to establish and maintain their social standing among peers. They believe that in theory school is supposed to prepare them for the future, but they have no idea how. My favorite activity is when I ask them to write two-section headers: useful and useless. They then place each school subject into one of the categories. The resulting debate is hearty, and the answers are always different. When we debrief, I speak openly about how the subjects they study are a product of historical inertia and were not designed with them in mind. But also there’s something to be said for learning to ideate, debate, and create no matter the topic at hand.

Student whiteboards categorizing classes as “useful” or “useless”
Student whiteboards categorizing classes as “useful” or “useless”

These conversations are engaging and inspiring, but we also must be real: cogens will not fix a broken system. This has been a hellish school year across the country, and my classroom is no exception. Our schools have been failing our students for decades, and it’s starker now than ever. Before the pandemic, it was often a given that everyone went to school every day and did at least some schoolwork, whether or not they liked it. When schools shut down in 2020, this assumption was called into question. Now that students are back in person, they’re making the school experience their own by prioritizing socialization (in classrooms and on social media) over coursework. They assert that school isn’t serving them, and they show it by refusing to play the game.

When I’ve done cogens with students over the past two years, they are honest about their pandemic experiences and forthright about how they prioritize social communities over course content. They tell me sincerely that they see no reason to change their priorities. A few months ago, a student asked me when I was going to do another cogen because she wanted me to buy her pizza again. (I provide lunch to cogen participants.) I told her I’m happy to buy her pizza and it doesn’t need to be seen as payment for a cogen, but that also I was uncomfortable taking my time and money to get her pizza when she had yet to complete a single day’s assignment in my class. She said that was a fair point and promised to participate in class the next day instead of sitting on her phone. The next day, I reminded her of our agreement, but she said no thanks and stayed on her phone. I asked her why she wasn’t participating. She said she knew what was being asked of her and she agreed the class was interesting and at the right level of difficulty for her, but she just didn’t feel like getting started. She said the idea of pizza was a real motivator and maybe tomorrow she’d start to do some classwork. Three months later, she still hasn’t participated in class and I still haven’t bought her pizza. We are both at a loss.

I tell this story not because it’s unique but because it’s common. I have had a version of this experience with most of my students this year. When Palacios and I led our workshop at Math for America, every teacher there was beyond exhausted. Tears were shed. And yet, none of us was giving up: we just kept on sharing our challenges, trying new types of cogens, making suggestions, and trying again. Conducting and debriefing our classroom cogens was an emotional escape for us as educators, a way to process our daily grappling with traumatized students, inflexible curricula, and an oppressive system.

Working with Upperline Code has taught me to value the student experience over the measurement of a learning objective. Whether a student leaves my class able to construct and analyze a motion map is less important to me than whether they leave my class excited to pursue more physics in the future. Similarly, when Palacios and I facilitated our workshop series, we asked teachers after each meeting whether their experience was meaningful. I include our survey results below because I think these should be the questions we ask our students at the end of each class. We spend enough time measuring content acquisition. What I want to know is: are we healing together?

Three pie charts showing teachers’ responses to survey questions from cogen workshop series
Survey results from cogen workshop with teachers



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Elissa Levy

Elissa Levy

I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.