This is one of the questions we are always asking oursleves. Are we fooling ourselves to strive for "authientic conversations?"
This question is important and difficult to frame. It makes me think of growing organic crops (something I don't know much about, but bear with me for an analogy). There are all kinds of pesticides flying through the air in crop-growing areas. There are cross-germinating spores and seeds in the air too. If you're in the minority of farmers who want organic only crops, you have quite a challenge on your hands.
When teaching, learning, and conversing, there are many more than two kinds of distractions challenging the cultivation of authenticity. However, when you find the right ways to tweak your environment, to allow the natural human ecology to be encouraged, these organic instances develop on their own and are worth working for.
I am not convinced that we every really reach that "authenticity" bar for our students, who are writing and performing mostly for the teacher, even as we try to use the tools at our disposal to put learning into their own hands and make it their own. The environment, the community, the structure, the limits we place on them -- all of these are shackles to student authenticity at times. That's not such a bad thing, I believe, since we want to show them the possibilities of the world through guided experiences, and then we hope that some of that learning sticks to them for life outside of school. We want them to be independent thinkers, but only in the context of our own expectations of what independence means, isn't that right?
This is a fascinating question, Paul, and it goes to the heart of my own expectations of my students in my own classroom. I guess I want authenticity as much as possible but realize that this is mostly unreasonable given the context of learning, and the need for me to hit specific curriculum frameworks.
Authenticity, as Kevin said, is a very high bar. Perhaps having an easy conversation is equally challenging. Even in classrooms in which students regularly speak to one another, it is quite difficult to bring that talk to the level of a give-and-take in which each listens carefully and responds appropriately.
Instead, I can see that you are working to support the "elevation" of this talk to the level of academic discourse through protocols and sentence starters. Perhaps academic discourse is too elevated, but I think authentic, engaged discussion is also so important in bringing a sense of real life into a classroom.
When I trained college students to respond to the writing of other students in a writing center, we spent a great deal of time trying to get peer tutors to listen carefully, to avoid judgment or advice, and to try to ask provocative questions that would help the writer to think more deeply about his or her thinking. Maintaining respect, staying positive, maintaining equality of power relations, and then to actually support someone else's growth took us a good semester of discussions and practice.
I see that process here, and think it's so admirable that you have created such a place for students to talk and learn.
I agree in that authenticity is difficult to find in the standard classroom, but when that classroom is built on authentic conversation, the learning is evident. Creating a place where students can be heard and their opinions honored, both about their own work and others, creates authenticity on a realistic and basic level. I agree with Deb that if the environment is created with the goal of authenticity, the results are phenomenal. Students feel the freedom to develop their own skills, creating a more productive and thoughtful classroom. Authenticity should always be the umbrella that sits directly over our students.