The Ultimate Guide to ELA Discussions

I have a teacher friend who once downloaded a sound clip of
crickets chirping to play when he threw out a question and was waiting for a
response from his students. We’ve all been there. Sometimes class discussion
flows and sometimes it doesn’t. But there are
things we can do to help it along.  
Let’s start with types of discussions. Sometimes, if a group
isn’t responding to one discussion format, they may get more out of another.
There are so many! It’s nice to work with a variety to keep things interesting
for students, but it’s also good when they can get used to a routine. See what
works best in your classroom. 
Part I: Three Types of Discussion
My personal favorite is called the Harkness discussion. This format originated at Phillips Exeter
Academy as a new strategy to promote student-centered discussion. Students sit
in a circle and the teacher acts as a discussion guide but rarely participates.
I learned about Harkness my first year as a teacher, cobbling together
information about it from articles, and launched an experiment in each of my
classes to use it for one month and see what happened. I would help students to
be well prepared for discussion, arrange the desks in a circle, invite someone
to sit on the side as a discussion observer and take notes on our discussion
dynamics, and then invite anyone who wanted to to start the discussion. Then I
would industriously take notes on what my students said and try to stay out of
the conversation unless it veered dangerously off topic. When there was a long
silence and every eye in the room fell on me, I would just continue writing in
my notebook, avoiding their eyes and NOT rescuing them.
Eventually someone
would jump back in and the conversation would continue. At the end of the class
our observer would report back to us on our dynamics, and I would ask for one
recommendation for improvement. At first it usually had to do with awkward
pauses or the fact that not everyone had participated. But as time went on, the
recommendations became more complex, relating to text references, gender
dynamics, interdisciplinary connections, interruptions, and more. At the end of
the month, I felt all my classes – honors and regular – had made significant
progress in their ability to take ownership of their dynamics and conversations.

But I wanted to learn more about Harkness. That summer I
attended the Humanities Institute at Phillips Exeter, spending a week learning
about how best to teach using Harkness and participating in Harkness
discussions so I would understand the dynamics from the inside. Not only did I
come out of the workshop a better teacher, but I met my future husband at the
Harkness table.  No wonder I like this
discussion method so much! If you’re interested in Harkness, check out this post giving a few more details about how to get started. 
Another great discussion option is Literature Circles. The first time I did literature circles I had
two books I just couldn’t choose between in my curriculum. I wanted to read The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby with my juniors, and
there wasn’t time! So I came in one morning and pitched them both. “Read Gatsby!” I said, “You’ll be taken on a
romantic adventure through the roaring 20s.” “Read The Sun Also Rises,” I said. “You’ll wander through the streets and
parties of Pamplona with travelers and bullfighters, guided by Hemingway’s
gorgeous words.” I made recruitment posters for each book. In each of my
classes, about half the students chose each text. If one group was a bit too large, I would try to persuade one or two students of the benefits of the other book.  I created groups and
handed out the books. I told the students they’d have opportunities each day to
meet in their groups and discuss the reading, and that they’d be doing a
multigenre presentation at the end of the unit to share their novel with the
other half of the class. Then I gave them time to create a reading schedule and
choose roles.
Many teachers who use literature circles use discussion roles as a way to help formalize the discussion structure. Each day every
student (or most, if the group is large) in the circle is assigned a different role. So on one day a student
might be leader, on another day the person in charge of bringing in several
questions to start the discussion, etc. There are a range of roles, and you can add any that you think would be helpful for your own students. If you are doing literature
circles this way, you will want to print descriptions of the roles to share
with your classes. Once my students all had reading schedules and roles to
prepare for, the month pretty much took care of itself. Sometimes we would meet
as a whole class to work on writing activities or other pursuits, but a large
chunk of every day was spent in literature circle groups. I would rotate from
group to group to listen in and be sure things were on track. I’d also collect
the notes students had taken to prepare for their roles and give them credit
for completing this important prep.
At the end of the month students began to prepare for their
presentations, getting creative with ideas to share the themes and feel of
their novels with their classmates. Not only did the presentations include
great information, but we also ate Spanish food and watched a Great Gatsby
fashion show.  If you’re interested in
doing literature circles, simply make sure you have group sets of whatever
novels you’d like to share with your students, a rundown on the roles you’d
like them to use and the days you’ll be meeting in groups, and a handout
describing the type of presentations you’d like to see at the end. Then enjoy
the change in the style, flow and creativity of your classroom!
Harkness and Literature Circles are, clearly, pretty major
commitments. This next form of discussion can easily be introduced and tried
for one day. It’s called a Fishbowl
Discussion
.  For a fishbowl
discussion, you arrange the classroom so that a group of students can sit in an
inner circle and a group of students can sit around them in a wider circle.
Students in the outer circle are not allowed to participate in the discussion,
but are invited to take notes and write down questions and ideas. Then, after five
or ten minutes, you ask the circles to switch. What I like about this strategy
is that every student will have a chance to be part of a smaller, more intimate
discussion and hopefully express her opinion. At the same time, every student
will have an opportunity to listen carefully to his peers, taking notes and
learning from others. Students who have been stuck outside the discussion are
often eager to express their opinions by the time they finally get to
participate.
So there you have it, three forms of discussion worth
attempting. Harkness, Literature Circles, and Fishbowl discussions are all
completely different ways of approaching the text aloud, and chances are, at
least one of them will work well in your classroom.
Part II: Discussion Prep
This next section is about discussion prep. I never like to jump into a discussion without a
bit of warm-up. Students’ minds are everywhere but on the text when they first
enter the classroom. In the passing period they may have been cramming for a
science test, fighting with a significant other, texting friends, checking
facebook, worrying about college applications… you get the idea. Expecting them
to immediately make thoughtful contributions to discussion is unrealistic.
That’s why I like to start discussions with a five or ten minute warm-up.
Here are five of my favorites.
#1 The Question Pass:
To do a question pass, ask every student in the room to write down a question
about the reading at the top of a page in their notebook. Ask them to avoid yes
or no questions. Then ask everyone to pass their notebook to the person next to
them. Give the class one minute to respond to the question. Then do another
pass. After four or five passes, let students return the notebooks and then
read their answers. Begin the discussion by asking for a volunteer to read
their question. At this point at least four people have thought through
everyone’s question, so no one should be caught by surprise. I find the
discussion usually flows pretty well after this warm-up. If the discussion is
being led by the students, they have plenty of questions to ask. If you are
leading, you can always call on someone to read their question when a subject
has run dry.
#2 Journal Entry:
Come up with a question that connects your students’ lives to the material you
are discussing. For example, if you’re reading The Scarlet Letter, you might
ask: What do you think would be harder,
taking the blame for something you and someone else did together, or watching
someone you care about take the blame for you?
Let students write for a
while. Then begin the discussion with the question students have already
considered.
#3 Partner Activity:
Asking students to review the reading by completing a short and fun partner
activity gets the ball rolling quickly. I have a lot of handouts I use for this
purpose – you can make ones that are not particularly specific to the reading
so you can use them again. For example, ask the partners to create a soundtrack
of three songs perfect for a movie version of the reading. Or to pretend they
are covering the action for the New York Times and need to write ten tweets
that describe the events in the reading. Or to imagine they are writing a blog
post form the perspective of one of the characters about the reading. It’s
pretty easy to brainstorm these quick activities, and they help students review
the reading in a fast fun way. To further reinforce the warm-up you can have
the partnerships share with each other for a few minutes before heading into the
full group discussion.
#4 Acting: Have
students get together with three or four other students. Ask them to create a
60 second version of the reading from the night before. They should write a
(very short) script and decide who will be which character. Then they can
practice it a couple of times. Randomly choose a few groups to perform for the
class before you start your discussion.
#5 Question Contest:
Ask students, alone or in pairs to take five minutes and write as many
discussion questions down as they can.  Offer
a prize for the student  (or students)
who comes up with the most.  I did this
once with a homemade brownie as the prize and boy did the questions flow! From
there it’s easy to start the discussion with someone’s favorite question.
So there you have it, five quick ways to help students warm
up for discussion. No doubt you’ll think of many more! 
Part III: Grading Discussions 

Our final section is about grading discussion, no one’s favorite task.
Discussion participation is a relatively intangible thing, though we know when
a student is doing a good job with it. Still, it’s hard to create a paper trail
to show a student when they are NOT doing a good job with it. To quote Yenta in
A Fiddler on the Roof, “am I right or am I right???!”
So here are a few ways I’ve used or heard of over the years
to streamline the process. Maybe one of them will be just what you’re looking
for!
One of my favorite creative ways to grade a discussion is to
do a class challenge.  The purpose of the
challenge is to encourage all students to participate. In every class I’ve ever
taught, there are discussion dominators and students who rarely if every participate.
It’s one of the reasons I like to use the Harkness method, so students become
more aware of their own discussion dynamics and begin to improve them. I
usually do the challenge when we’ve been doing Harkness for a while, and the
students have had a chance to adjust to the system. Then I let them know that I
will be giving everyone in the class a bonus grade of 100% for the day (I use
points – so they get a free 10/10 in my gradebook) if everyone speaks at least
one time during the discussion. Sounds easy, right? This provides quite an
incentive for dominating students to quiet down and quiet students to try to
find the courage to speak up. I try hard to make sure everyone has a chance to
warm up by writing down questions or ideas for the discussion, so students who
struggle with language or get really nervous in front of their peers can just
read something from their notebooks. I also reinforce to students that they
will not get a bad grade if they do not meet the challenge, and I will offer it
again soon. It’s not easy! But it can be very eye opening for everyone when
they realize quiet students have good contributions to make and that the
dominating group doesn’t actually have to dominate.
Another easy way to grade discussion is to make it  your “round up or down” factor. Let students
know that if they are right on the edge between B+ and A-, C and C+, etc. you
will be thinking back to their classroom contributions to help you make the
decision which way their grade will round. This will matter a lot to some
students, and it doesn’t require you to create a participation grading scheme
to use every single day.
If you really want students to care about their discussion
grade, you can always use a chart system. Create a chart with everyone’s name and
a series of columns where you can write in the date of the discussion. Use
symbols like check, check minus, or check plus to jot down the level of their
participation on any given day. Put a zero for students who clearly did not
prepare or participate. You can either be jotting these down during a
discussion if it is student-driven, like Harkness, or while students are doing
a closing activity. You can even quickly do it as they walk out the door,
though that is always more complicated if you are getting ready to welcome
another class.

At the end of the quarter you can look back on your chart
and give As to majority check plusses, Bs to majority checks, and Cs to
majority check minuses.  Combos of zeros
and check minuses will probably funnel to the D or F range. The exact system
will just depend on what works for you.
I hope this post gave you some ideas for improving your class discussions. Since you made it all the way through this long post, I bet you are the kind of teacher who is always looking for ways to make a difference in your students lives by teaching creatively. You should join my new Facebook group, Creative High School English. I can’t wait to see you there!
                                                                

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I'm Betsy

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