Three Multi-Modal Dialogue Techniques from Katie Dawson’s Difficult Dialogues Workshop

Dr. Sarah Ropp, the Humanities Institute’s Difficult Dialogues Program Coordinator, will be writing weekly blog posts sharing  material from the Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community events and other resources.

In her first post, she shares three techniques from the March 12 workshop, “Dialogic Meaning-Making through Multiple Modes,” led by Katie Dawson (Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance) and Beth Link (a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction). Read her post below!

On Friday, March 12, Katie Dawson (Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance) and Beth Link (a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction) led an invigorating workshop for faculty as part of the Spring 2021 series of bimonthly Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community events. Entitled “Dialogic Meaning-Making through Multiple Modes,” the workshop focused on engaging students in meaningful dialogue through visual and embodied modes, rather than strictly verbal (whether oral or written). Taking an experiential approach, Dawson and Link led a total of 10 faculty members through several highly engaging dialogue structures, each of which is widely adaptable across disciplines for use with students in the classroom. Three of these structures are detailed below. 

  • Breathe and Stretch Check-in. To open the workshop, Dawson led participants in a check-in. Rather than the typical verbal check-in, in which students take turns giving oral answers, Dawson introduced a nonverbal, embodied check-in. She invited participants to unmute ourselves one-by-one and perform a unique breath and stretch–whatever felt centering and helpful in preparing each individual to engage in the workshop. The other participants would then repeat the breath and stretch modeled by our colleague. This exercise worked to dispel anxiety, create a sense of community, and foster a sensation of simultaneous restfulness and readiness to engage.  

  • Watercolor Conversations. Link, an arts educator, led participants in a non-verbal dialogue structure entitled “Watercolor Conversations.” In this activity, participants were split into pairs, and each pair of participants conducted a back-and-forth, silent conversation by taking turns to build upon each other’s drawings on a single canvas. (We used a digital painting tool called; in a face-to-face setting, instructors would need to provide paper and watercolor paints, crayons, or markers.) Link prompted participants to consider what abstract elements–colors, shapes, and lines–might represent different emotions or states of mind. She instructed us to follow certain conversational conventions as we painted: one person initiated the non-verbal dialogue by painting an abstract shape or line that expressed how they were feeling, the other responded to it, and their partner responded to them in kind. Participants were encouraged to paint in the same space–i.e., not have a “one-sided” conversation–to be mindful of how much space they were taking up in the canvas, and to avoid “interrupting.” Each participant engaged in visual dialogue with their partner for about five minutes while soft music played. Back in the whole group, Link led a post-dialogue reflection, in which participants considered the experience of having performed the watercolor conversation (“warm,” “supportive,” and “happy” were some of the reports) as well as the activity’s potential application in the classroom. Community building and norm-setting were emphasized as this activity’s main benefits, as the visual medium provides a grounding literality to discuss with students the importance of listening, responsiveness, and not taking up too much space in the dialogue. 

  • Sociometrics. Dawson led participants in this embodied dialogue technique, also known as “Vote From Your Seat.” In this activity, participants used our arms as a sliding bar graph to indicate the degree to which we agreed or disagreed with a given statement. Holding our hands palm-out in front of our bodies, such that they were visible to other Zoom meeting participants, we slid our hands upwards towards the top of our Zoom box to indicate agreement in response to a series of thought-provoking statements such as “Learning is easy.” Hands all the way up to the top indicated full agreement, while hands hovering down near the bottom indicated disagreement. Degrees of skepticism were indicated by partially raised hands. Participants were instructed to pause and take stock of the varying viewpoints present in the room before lowering their hands and engaging in reflective dialogue. Rather than immediately ask participants to defend their positions, Dawson instead began by asking participants to consider what someone who had agreed with the statement might have been thinking (as well as why someone might disagree or feel conflicted). In this way, participants entered the conversation from a stance of curiosity rather than debate.

For additional techniques, please visit Dawson’s Drama-Based Instruction website.

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