Ideas for Keeping Discussion Flowing in Reading/Language Arts

20170414_1208091.jpgWith a drought of instructional time, how can teachers support rich, deep whole-group discussion?  Here are a few tips to help purposeful, student-centered discussion flow when class time is limited:

  • Have students choose an engaging, high level question that students may work to answer as a group.  Try providing a short list of teacher-written/textbook questions or student-written questions from which the group can choose.  For example:
    • How would you describe the character in the story as a person?
    • What were the true causes of the event?
    • What is the best evidence that the character made the right choice?
    • What is the most important lesson in this story/chapter?
    • Why do two characters have a different point of view?
  • Once a question is selected for exploration, decide on a time-frame for the group to find the best possible answer.  (Example: We have 8 minutes to find the best answer/textual support for this question. Let’s listen, focus, and build on each other’s ideas for 8 minutes and see what answer we find in that time!
  • Step out of the middle of the discussion; so that students can call on each other.  One student speaks at a time, and students who wish to contribute raise their hands when the student who is speaking has finished his/her thought.  Then, the student who finished speaking should call on the next student. Having students call on each other enables the teacher to monitor the discussion, taking notes on who is participating.  Or, the teacher may wish to record student points and evidence on the board as students engage in discussion.
  • Challenge some/all students to take notes during the conversation and to share the group’s conclusions. (Another idea is for half of the class to discuss one question for a few minutes while the other students take notes/synthesize the discussion.  Then, the roles can be reversed.)
  • Require students to keep books open while discussing text and cite evidence/page numbers to support their ideas.

Be mindful when turning on the the conversation faucet. With a bit of practice and commitment, student-centered discussions may gush out of just a few minutes of dedicated class time.

An “Old Thought” for 21st Century Learning

IMG_1608Despite the advantages of teaching in the information age, I sometimes wistfully imagine myself teaching in a “one-room schoolhouse” surrounded by wildflowers, shuffling slate pencils and McGuffey readers.

Why not get lost in a little imagining now and then? In our 21st Century elementary schools, teaching is so complicated. There’s always something for teachers to implement–new technology, new curriculum, new instruction techniques.

Our heads are overflowing as we “facilitate instruction.” It seems we barely have room to grasp what truly makes school a place of ideas–the ideas, themselves.

This year, my sixth graders read and discussed “A Bouquet of Wildflowers,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this essay, Wilder asserts that manufactured “improvements” cannot take the place of “simple things” that are true and natural. She explains:

We heap up all around us things that we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles…we chase after this new idea and that; we take on an old thought and dress it out in so many words that the thought itself is lost in its clothing like a slim woman in a barrel skirt and we exclaim, “Lo, the wonderful new thought I have found![1]

Although she wrote for a larger audience, Wilder’s words resonate for educators. If elementary schools are to be places of ideas, we teachers need to take a moment and cycle back.  We need to pause, enjoy, and engage in an “old thought” — learning.

We educators need to pursue our own academic interests and share them with students and colleagues. Students need to see teachers engaging in academic discussions just for fun. They need to hear us sharing thoughts about the books and articles we read. They need to catch us being curious, asking questions, and trying online searches “just to find out.”  Children have grown to expect energy and engagement from coaches and fans on the athletic fields.  Similarly, teachers (and parents) need to share a genuine passion for the “game” of academics if we want our children to keep playing.

As elementary school teachers, we need to reach beyond facilitating an engaged learning community.   We need to be one.

 

 

[1]Laura Ingalls Wilder, “A Bouquet of Wildflowers” (1917) – Center for Gifted Education Staff,  Mary Pleiss, contributor. Patterns of Change: Student Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. Print.

Class Discussions: Laying the Groundwork

In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill[1] suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:

Factors that negatively impact discussions:

  • Interrupting
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of preparation
  • Difficult (sensitive)topics
  • Side conversations
  • Judgment of people
  • Facial expressions
  • Distractions
  • Attention Seeking

Factors that positively impact discussions

  • Engaging topic
  • Everyone talks
  • Feels natural
  • Everyone pays attention
  • Everyone’s opinion heard
  • Possible to change your mind
  • Many possible answers
  • Everyone treats others with respect

We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.

As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.

Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.

Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.

Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year.  Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.

 

 

[1] Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic   classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.