Facilitating Worthwhile Class Discussions
How Do I Get My Students to Talk?
Your goal: worthwhile discussion. Your results: less than stellar, to say the least.
You know what I’m talking about. You try to get a good discussion going in class but it’s always the same students with their hands up…or maybe no one has his hand up at all!
Maybe you’ve discovered some “magical” question stems to help you develop the questions you pose to class.
Perhaps you have questions from a teacher guide or text book, with answers based on what the students have been reading.
And, you’re even being sure to ask a good balance of “right there” as well as “open-ended” questions.
But…no…all you get is:
Throughout my years working with students of all ages, I have striven to develop more than a few strategies that help to engage the entire class in worthwhile discussions.
This first in a series of four blog postings on this topic will not give you ALL of the strategies you could use to facilitate great discussion in your classroom. Instead, I will share with you my favorite tried-and-true approaches tested and refined in my own classrooms to engage all students and support focused, even out-of-the box, thinking about learning.
Each of these postings will offer a free, downloadable resource to assist you in your own classroom.
Problem #1 Impeding Worthwhile Discussion:
No One Raises a to Respond
This tends to be a real issue when attempting discussion about new or complicated skills or concepts. The students don’t have confidence with the topic, and, of course, no one wants to be “wrong.”
First, be sure that you have “front-loaded” enough information to build your students’ background knowledge on the topic.
I always explain to my students that “learning” is a matter of “hooking” new information to old information in their brains. Kids cannot internalize new information that they cannot associate with knowledge they already possess.
So…you’ve front-loaded and worked to uncover background knowledge, perhaps with KWL or some other literacy strategy.
Worthwhile Discussion Strategy #1
To support students in attempting to think through questions they are having a hard time responding to, I like to group students in partners or groups of no more than three. You decide if you want to form the groups or let the students choose. Keeping the groups small insures that everyone will be participating in the discussion of the question.
Have students discuss their thoughts, then WRITE DOWN a couple of possible answers to the question (they can write on scrap paper, sticky notes, white boards, etc. but they must write their possible answers down in order for this strategy to work). As students engage each other, be sure that you are walking around the classroom LISTENING to what the students are saying. This will give you a good idea of they are thinking and what misconceptions might be out there lurking.
Once the appointed length of time has expired, and you have checked out what the students have been discussing and writing down, you can now call on partner groups to respond. This works well because 1. students are not just relying on their own thoughts, they have had a chance to bounce their ideas off their partner, and 2. since there are tangible answers actually written down, students don’t feel like they have to think on the spot.
Things to Consider
Avoid the temptation to make all groups then share out. Remember, all your students have already all engaged in their “mini-discussions,” so restating everything out loud may just end up being a waste of time. Perhaps in your roving, you came across a group that had some really good thoughts. Maybe it’s enough to just have one or two groups share out.
If NONE of the groups are on the right track with their discussion, your students may need to go back to whatever resource your discussion is based on and explore it further. “Close reading” asks students to read and re-read a particular text for different purposes. Have them re-visit a text and try one of these tasks as they re-read:
*paraphrase the topic sentences
* make a list of the content vocabulary and come up with their own definitions
*determine the pattern of the text (esp. if non-fiction…is it compare/contrast, exemplification, cause/effect?)
*any other task that would support them in begin able to discuss what you would like for them to be able to articulate about the resource
*consider the text from a different point of view (realize students need to be able to identify point of view in order to be able to do this)
If you are still not getting the responses you think show that students are comprehending the material, then take heart. My next blog post on this topic will walk you through what to do when no one is getting the “right” answer.
FREE Resource to Support Worthwhile Discussion in Your Classroom
As promised, HERE is a free download of a chart I developed comparing close reading, literary analysis, and critical analysis approaches to text.
This comparison chart lays out differences and similarities between close reading, literary analysis, and critical analysis approaches to text.
*approaches to text
*fiction & non-fiction texts
*perspective– including focus and consideration of author
Use this chart to guide you as you facilitate focused discussion in your classroom!