When it comes to in-person discussion, my go-to has always been Harkness. Teaching kids how to have a conversation, mostly without me, and then reflect on their own abilities and dynamics and improve after each day, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching for me.
Did I mention I met my husband at the Exeter Humanities Institute, learning about Harkness?
Yes, it’s an amazing method, and I’ve talked about it a lot here before (like in this podcast episode, and this one). But, when it comes to a virtual discussion, a free-flowing conversation built upon eye contact, body cues, and slowly deepening relationships probably isn’t the best.
Maybe your students are keeping their video feeds off. Maybe they aren’t un-muting, even when you actually want them to. Virtual discussions are HARD.
But here’s where Harkness does have something crucial to share. When it comes to getting kids to talk to each other in a Harkness circle, without much help from their teacher, discussion warm-ups are critical. Taking a few minute to get everyone thinking about the topics, perhaps writing or reading/watching/listening to a complementary piece and reflecting on it, is huge.
At the Exeter Humanities Institute, they’d often have us write one discussion question, throw it into a hat, and then pull someone else’s out to ask during our conversation when it felt like the group was ready for a new topic. That way we automatically had something to say when a topic seemed to be dying out. Not only that, but it wasn’t even our own question so we had no personal stake in how it went over. Very low pressure!
So am I suggesting we create a Google Slide with a hat on it where kids can drop and trade virtual discussion questions? No, not exactly. (Though that actually doesn’t sound kind of cool). But if you want to have a live discussion online with your students, as opposed to using a message board, a backchat app, a Flipgrid response, or a Jamboard, getting them warmed up before you dive in will make a huge difference, just as it does with Harkness.
Here are five ideas for digital warm-ups you can start using immediately. You can listen in on the podcast player below, or on your player of choice, or just read on.
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#1 Silent Discussion
This has always been one of my favorite discussion warm-ups. Normally I’d have students write a question at the top of their notebook, then pass it left, respond, pass, then read and respond, pass, then read and respond, etc. Then I’d open the discussion by asking someone to read their question. Since several kids would already have written responses and read others’ responses, things usually picked up quickly.
This activity modifies easily to digital. You can create a collaborative question slide deck (feel free to use these slide templates that I made for you). Then invite each student to add a question to the top of one slide and begin adding responses on others’ slides. You can ask them to respond and read on maybe five slides, and then begin your class discussion based on the questions and answers they’ve already been exploring. If you make this a regular practice, the tech will soon seem simple to the kids. This could easily be a weekly practice. While I might change up discussion warm-ups pretty constantly in person, keeping clear expectations and patterns can be helpful online!
#2 Hexagonal Thinking
Hexagonal thinking is another engaging way to get kids thinking about key concepts and connections related to your reading. Warm up for discussion by giving them a list of terms and asking them to figure out how to connect them in a hexagonal web. Ask them to jot down explanations for three of their connections (or send three connection explanations to you, if you want to check for completion). Then after ten or fifteen minutes, start the conversation by asking someone to share what they connected and why. Invite kids to raise their hands (on video or in the chat) to share different or similar connections they made with those terms, and continue from there.
If you’d like to get my full editable digital hexagonal thinking toolkit with lots of examples and full instructions, I’m happy to send it your way! Just sign up for my Friday emails below, confirm your address, and then enjoy your toolkit.
#3 Social Media Snapshot
For this digital warm-up, tap into your students’ love of social media and ask them to frame what’s been happening in the reading through a social lens. Maybe they sketch out an Instagram reel, complete with musical choice, for whatever they think was the most important moment in the reading. Maybe they write five snarky tweets for a sarcastic main character, inventing hashtags along the way. Maybe they create a #booksnap (learn all about them here!) for the chapter. Whatever it is, a dive into literary-themed social media will help them remember what they read and get ready to talk.
#4 Discussion Question Challenge
I invented this warm-up many years ago, in a moment of desperation. I wanted to get my students thinking outside the box, realizing there were a million ways to approach conversation around a reading. So I challenged them to a discussion question contest. I made white chocolate blueberry brownies and awarded them to the kids who came up with the most discussion questions for the reading. It was fifteen years ago now, but I want to say the winner of that first contest came up with about forty questions. A warm-up like this, where you challenge kids to come up with as many questions as they can in five or ten minutes, is an easy way to get them ready for a discussion! When it’s time to get going, just invite someone to share their question.
#5 Collaborative Slideshow
You know how I feel about Google Slides – they’re good for everything! A collaborative Google slideshow would make for an easy discussion warm-up. Give everyone in class a slide in the collaborative set, then ask them to put on whatever you think would help stoke your discussion. Maybe that looks like everyone putting their favorite quote, a related meme, and a discussion question on one slide, then perusing others. You could launch the discussion by inviting anyone to read someone else’s quote or question.
I bet you’re already brainstorming ideas for digital discussion warm-ups right now! Think of discussion a little like sports practice – it’s just going to go a lot better, with a lot fewer injuries, after a good warm-up.