Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Better Classroom Discussions Through Choice and a Little Bit of Chaos

Photo by USAG Livorno PAO via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Some of us have been there. You have a room full of 30+ students, and you wonder how it is possible that so many kids or teenagers could actually be that quiet. Many avert their eyes, thinking that if they don’t make eye contact, they can achieve the superpower of invisibility. Then, there are those five students who confidently and regularly raise their hands, waiting to be called on to answer the question that has been posed by the teacher. Regardless of the topic, regardless of the questions, it is usually the same five hands that sprout up each time.
How can we improve our practice so that more engagement occurs for all students and not just the confident few? A successful discussion is typically dependent on two factors: the topic and the level of participation. How can we choose subjects for discussion that interest and yet educate students? How can we run our discussions so that all students have a voice?
As an English Language Arts teacher, literacy is at the core of my curriculum. This is not new to our content area. For years, the traditional genres we teach include short stories, poetry, and novels. However, in this world where news can literally be transmitted the minute we click the share button, we need to expand the breadth of what our students are reading. Our world is increasingly digital, and it’s time we add that to our warehouse of genres. This is why I regularly supplement my students’ readings with online sources, like articles from KQED’s The Lowdown. The Lowdown provides current and educational topics that are fantastic for incorporating informational text into the classroom. What better way to meet this requirement in the Common Core State Standards than to introduce stories that also resonant with our students?
The Challenge
Whole class discussions come with limitations. This is why, over many years of teaching, I’ve tried different approaches to encourage meaningful dialogue among students. To me, a conversation isn’t meaningful if only 15 to 20% of the class is talking during the period. This is why I think the following strategies are great alternatives to the traditional approach of whole class discussions.
Student Choice
Ever mindful that students love choice, I let my students choose what they wish to read and discuss each week. On Mondays, the first task of the day is to browse the topics offered on The Lowdown to see which topics interest them. Next, I ask for a volunteer to facilitate the decision-making process. This person takes up to five suggestions before polling the class. Students are allowed to vote as many times as they want, and the article that receives the most votes is the one that we read that week.
Socratic Seminars with a Twist
Socratic Seminars are formal, small group discussions that explore open-ended, critical-thinking questions based upon an assigned text. Before the seminar, students are given a set of questions that will be discussed. They prepare for the talk by taking notes or annotating the text. There are some excellent online resources that support teachers in using Socratic Seminars like this video from the Teaching Channel or the National Paideia Center, which offers a helpful overview of how to use this method in the classroom.
However, in my classroom, I feel it’s more empowering to have my students ask and answer their own questions. Students are encouraged to jot down questions during and after reading a text. Then, they submit their best question and the class votes on the ones they want to explore. Sometimes I tweak their submissions a little to ensure that the questions have the substance needed for a Socratic Seminar.
Due to class size, most teachers divide their students into two groups: an inner circle and an outer circle. The participants in the seminar sit in the inner circle, while the students in the outer circle take on the role of observers and coaches. However, in a secondary California classroom where we easily have more than 30 students, a socratic seminar with 15+ participants is still too large. Instead, I break my class into three groups: participants, coaches, and notetakers. The notetakers are each assigned to follow the contributions of one member of the inner circle and documents the conversation during the discussion on a shared Google Doc. I find that these smaller groups work best with an advanced class where students are usually competing for an opportunity to speak.
Table Talks
Even though Socratic Seminars are great for cultivating public speaking skills, I also want to create an environment where the engagement and participation in my class is high and constant. To do this, I created a method I coined Table Talks. Like I mentioned previously, I prefer to have my class submit and choose their own questions. Once the voting has ended, the top nine questions are shared, and students choose three that they want to explore. They prepare for the Table Talk the day before by choosing a position, gathering evidence, and writing a rationale. On the day of the Table Talk, students join the table that corresponds to the question they have chosen. This is repeated three times during the period. With multiple conversations occurring simultaneously, it may feel a little chaotic, but I love the animated discussions that arise. It also gets my students moving, and it gives them the opportunity to hear different perspectives.
Online Discussion Threads
If you have access to technology, online discussions are a wonderful way to ensure that every student’s voice is heard. Many learning management systems (LMS) include a discussion tool in their product, and the one I use is Schoology. With their analytics tool, I can quickly see who participated and how frequently they contributed to the conversation. When using a discussion tool, students have the opportunity to process their thoughts before sharing them. This allows for more thoughtful discourse and the occasion to practice their writing skills. Sometimes the opening question is posed by me, and sometimes I have all my students post one question of their own. To encourage active engagement and follow-up, I institute a “3 Post Rule.” Each student must contribute an original post, respond to another peer’s original post, and respond to someone’s reply.
In my classroom, I try to utilize a variety of strategies to give my students choice and to increase engagement. My goal is to foster a collaborative environment where all participants can feel they are a part of a larger conversation.

Originally published on KQED's "In the Classroom" blog. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.


  1. I’m amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head.

  2. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment!