You gave the strategy from post #1 in this series a go, and you are getting significantly more classroom participation and are inching toward more worthwhile discussions!
But…the responses you are getting are not assuring you that the students are comprehending the material.
What to do next?
Problem #2 – No One is Getting the “Right” Answer–Not Quite Worthwhile Discussions
Partner discussion and recording of possible responses before sharing whole class may have given your students some confidence in their ability to respond.
A close reading approach (this resource was available in the previous post) might have yielded some results. Students have spent more focused time in the text.
But obviously, students have not connected enough of the new material to what they already know to be able to demonstrate any “new learning” in the discussion.
Perhaps a brainstorming session might be in order.
Any time I have been shown this strategy throughout my years of teaching, it was demonstrated to me as a one-step process. Students were to think about something and make a list. I am proposing that two, even three steps might yield more focused, worthwhile discussion fodder. Please read on!
Download a free strategy poster for Multi-level Brainstorming from Never Stop Learning by clicking HERE.
Worthwhile Discussions Strategy #2
Arrange students in pairs, provide them with scrap paper, a mini white board, or even a sticky note. Propose some aspect of the topic that they can brainstorm about. Give them a set (small) amount of time to list five brainstorm ideas. Then, in rapid succession, have them share out until all of the ideas are exhausted. (The reason for five ideas is so that, allowing for repetition, each group will be able to share at least three unique brainstorm ideas.) It is great, if you can keep up, to type or write these up on display so that the entire class can see all of the ideas shared. (See below for how I accomplished this in my classroom.)
Then…and here is where the magic happens…choose one of the proposed brainstorm responses to think about more deeply. In the same partner groups, have them create a new brainstorm list. This time drilling even deeper into the topic, again limiting the time, with teacher roving between and monitoring groups, and sharing out from all groups.
Because in reading over this description myself, it seems a little foggy, let me share an experience from THIS WEEK in my own classroom.
Example From My Classroom –
Step One Toward Worthwhile Discussions
I teach a Freshman English Composition class at a community college. Everyone has to take this English Composition class. Though it’s not a stated “student learning outcome” for the class, I want my students to understand THE most important pragmatic outcome from the class: learning to write successfully about topics you cannot choose yourself or even topics that you do not care about. I hear from students over and over again that they are fine writing about topics of their choice or topics they are interested in, but they really struggle to write about topics they do not like or do not have any choice in defining.
Guess what? That’s what Freshman English Composition class is for!
Now, I could have just asked the students: how can you write successfully about topics you cannot choose or do not care about? But…I feared I would get “off the top of their head” responses, not carefully thought out answers. And I might not get responses I most wanted them to understand.
As my beloved mentor, Geri Williams, used to say, “Writing floats on a sea of talk.” I propose that thinking floats efficaciously upon that sea as well.
So I started by having my students get with a partner. I armed them with sticky notes, set a time limit of five minutes, and asked them to brainstorm ideas to answer this question: How Can I Successfully Write About Topics I Have Not Chosen or Do Not Care About?
When we were ready to share out, I drafted a student to type the responses in to the computer so they could be displayed via projector.
The (top of the head) responses I got on this first round were pretty much what I expected and not at all what I wanted them to walk away from the conversation with.
First Round Brainstorming List:
*choose to listen to music when I’m writing
*do more research into a topic
*talk to someone about the assignment
*maybe choose how to organize my paper
*drink hot chocolate when I write
*talk to the teacher about the assignment
*choose how to write the essay
*just do it and get it over with
*learn to like the topic
You may see some obvious problems with some of the responses in light of the question, but, hey, it was a brainstorm list, so we just went with it.
Example From My Classroom –
Step Two Toward Worthwhile Discussions
How Can I Successfully Write About Topics I Have Not Chosen or Do Not Care About?
I wanted my students to delve deeper into one particular response: *choose how to write the essay
So, with the same partner, I asked them to turn their slip of paper over and brainstorm three MORE ideas that were specifically under the category of ways they could choose HOW they would write their paper. The responses this time were much more in line with what I was hoping they were getting out of the course.
Second Round Brainstorming List:
*choose which expository mode I want to present my information in
*make choices about tone and diction
*make punctuation choices (even challenges like trying to correctly use a semi-colon on each page)
*strive to vary sentence structure (more compound & complex sentences, fewer simple sentence)
*choose what type of support and evidence I use
*write a thesis I feel passionate about, even if I’m not crazy about the topic
*choose what outside resources to reference
*work on developing an intriguing hook and an irresistible call to action
These responses were much more in line with what I had hoped they were getting from the course. These are the writing approaches we have been working on. I wanted to see that my students were internalizing these essentials of essay writing and valuing them as important elements of writing successfully, whether or not they were fully “in” to the topic.
It took two attempts at brainstorming to get to this level of thinking. I could have had them brainstorm even further any one of these responses from the second round of brainstorming had I wanted them to focus down even further. But for this discussion, anyway, they did get to the type of thinking I was hoping they would be able to talk about.
Things to Consider
Sometimes teachers have to really work to get students to participate in worthwhile discussion, but the results will be worth it.
Also, don’t forget that worthwhile discussions are great resources for gathering assessment information. You can understand a lot about students’ thinking by listening to them ponder an important question with a partner. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to visit the inside of your students’ brains by planting yourself at your desk as they attempt to “float” on their “seas of talk.”
In the next blog post in this series, we will look at what to do to get students to ask questions in class.
Please share your further ideas about this post or this topic in general in the comments below.