A Colorful Trick for Better Discussions

I admit it. I was a hand waver back in the day.

I didn’t just raise my hand, I leaned out of my seat and waved my arm like it had a big red flag in it and I was calling the whole world over to have warm blueberry pancakes.

It seemed possible that my teachers didn’t see it.

After all, they kept calling on kids who didn’t have their hand up. Kids who were looking away from them. Did they not see my I’ve-got-the-pancakes-they-are-right-here-come-get-them seat dance?

Of course, now I know a bit more about group dynamics. About involving everyone. About what happens in a discussion when your lead dominator sucks on a butterscotch for a few minutes and stays quiet, so there’s space for other voices.

But we didn’t have a lot of heart to hearts about this kind of thing back in my elementary school, so everyone kind of fell into their ruts.

The quiet ones. The doodlers. The disruptors. The dominators.

There are so many reasons why students might choose a certain path from a young age. By the time they arrive in your secondary classroom, that path can be pretty well-worn. I know you know this.

And of course, there are a lot of ways to approach the situation. Talking as a class about what makes a discussion tick is a wonderful activity. Individual conversations can do wonders. So can discussion observers who make suggestions for improvement.

I’ve used all of these strategies, and I recommend them.

But one of my favorite strategies for helping students speak outside the worn verbal grooves of their ruts is to use discussion role cards.

You can use my cards (free download here) or make your own. Each card should showcase a way of contributing to the discussion. If there’s something your students struggle with, like getting back on track after losing their way, create a role to help!

Students who are used to contributing in a certain way will be gently pushed to think about different ways to participate, and they’ll see others do the same. Holes that often exist in your discussions will suddenly be plugged by newly minted captains of that particular area. By the end of the day, there’ll be a lot to reflect on.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

If you find that students tend to lose track of literary language during their discussions, a literary expert can help.

Maybe the discussion sometimes gets lost when one person goes on a tangent or gets mixed up with what they’re saying, a clarifier can help reframe the conversation so everyone can move to the next point.

Do things sometimes get heated during discussions? A peacemaker can help.

There are a few different ways to choose roles.

One option (my personal favorite) is to tape the role cards under your students’ desks before the discussion begins. Then you can tell them their top secret role is waiting under their desk, and swear them to secrecy. Let them know you wanted to give them a chance to change things up, both in terms of their group dynamics and the way they discuss texts, so you’re trying an experiment.

Another way to do it is just to pass them all out, face down, after introducing the plan for the day, and ask students to keep their roles to themselves. Invite them to use the role cards as a stepping stone to trying on a different way of participating for one day, and see what they learn about themselves and the group.

If you use a seating chart, you could choose specific roles for students that you’d like to see break out of particularly tricky ruts. You could also let students choose roles, but request that they try something new for the very purpose of changing things up and seeing how they like it.

Once your students have tried a discussion with their new roles, give them time to reflect on what they learned about themselves as participants, about the class, and about how discussions work. (The reflection sheet above is included in this free download if you’d like to use mine).

Take a few minutes after they write down their thoughts and let them share with a partner or the whole class. Consider writing down some of their takeaways so you can remind them before the next discussion. And you can always pull your role cards out again in a few weeks and repeat the activity.

Role cards can be a great way to break up the ruts, empower students to try new approaches to discussion, and eventually, improve your overall group dynamics and discussion performance in class. So… ready to give your students a secret mission?

PSSST. I love sharing colorful strategies like this one over on Instagram. I hope you’ll come say hi!

hey there!

I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!

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