Years ago a teacher friend told me his hilarious trick of playing a sound clip of crickets on his computer when no one responded to his questions in class.
I think we’ve all been there.
But even though the cricket noises are funny a couple of times, what then? What if your students really won’t talk?
It’s awful! No one needs the palm sweats, the awkward silence, the quick glances to the clock. When students won’t respond, your teaching confidence slides downhill like an Olympic skier.
That’s why in this post I’m rounding up four options to jumpstart good discussion no matter how challenging the group.
Let’s start with the Harkness method, first developed by Phillips Exeter Academy. Harkness has changed EVERYTHING for me in terms of discussion dynamics. With Harkness, the students own their own discussion process, learning how to have a real conversation with each other and how to improve day by day.
I’ll never forget the moment one of my students, her school president, cried in conversation with me following class after a totally silent boy opened up and joined our Harkness discussion for the first time. She had always believed that she and one other super smart boy in the class were the only ones with anything to say in discussion. She had no idea what lay behind the silence of her classmates. Gentle conversations with her about making room for others and the power of Harkness helped her see that everyone’s voice matters. You can discover more about the method in this podcast or this post.
Discussion warm-ups can also make a huge difference. Check out this podcast to discover how to help students think through what they’ll be talking about before someone floats that first question. When students are warmed up, very few crickets come out to play.
Another great option is to use discussion role cards. Handing out these secret mission cards (or taping them under students’ desks, my personal favorite) helps give them a specific way to contribute to the discussion, like “try to subtly draw out quiet students” or “ask a question when we need a new topic.”
But sometimes even tried-and-true methods like Harkness, warm-ups, and discussion role cards just aren’t doing the trick. So what do you do when your students just stare awkwardly at you and each other no matter what?
Try breaking the ice with a silent discussion!
Yep, you heard me right. A silent discussion.
In a silent discussion, kids ask questions, answer them, make points, disagree, give evidence, ask more questions, and generally dive deep into your topic, except… in silence.
It’s actually really easy. And students tend to enjoy the unexpected aspect of it.
To hold a silent discussion, follow these simple steps…
1. Let the class know you are going to have a silent discussion. No talking. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Ask everyone to write a question about the novel/poem/play/etc. at the top of a blank piece of paper and take out their text, so they can refer to it in their silent conversation.
2. Have them pass the paper to the right. Ask everyone to respond for a minute. Ask them to pass to the right again, read the question and first response, and either respond to the first response or the question. Feel free to vary the response time and let it go longer when students are busily writing.
3. Continue to have them pass and respond, pass and respond for as long as it feels productive.
4. Eventually, have everyone stop and either tape the paper they are working on up on the wall, or put it facing out on their desk. Then give everyone a few minutes to get up and read the questions and responses.
5. At this point, you can either segue into another activity, or take the silent discussion verbal. Once students (even a really difficult, awkward group!) have already had a chance to respond to all the questions that might come up, and have also read a lot of other responses, it’s like having serious training wheels for discussion. Ask someone to throw out a question that got some debate started in the silent discussion, and away you just may go with a great verbal discussion too.
I hope you’ve found some helpful ideas for the next time the crickets start chirping in your classroom. It happens to us all sooner or later, so it’s nice to have some good options in your toolbox.
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