17 November 2013

Musing on Classroom Discussion Methods

In my third high school in as many years, I was not a vocal participant in class discussions.  However, when my English teacher said our grade for the Lord of The Flies unit would depend upon how much we participated in class discussion, I decided not to let my reticence hinder my grade.  Each night I would read the required chapters before the next day’s discussion and then I would read the Cliffs Notes for ideas about what I would say when the teacher started asking us questions.  Since we sat in rows and I sat in the back, the teacher had no idea my insightful remarks were actually not my words or my insights. 

Flash forward six years to my senior year of college and a poetry seminar where my reticence once again threatened to take hold.  This time, however, I did not turn to cheat sheets or someone else’s ideas because our professor took a different approach to our class discussions—an approach that required us to dig deep and to think critically and carefully about what we were reading.  We typically sat in a square facing one another, so hiding behind rows of students was also not an option. Fortunately, this professor did not just expect us to read carefully, he taught us how by modeling it, and by asking careful, prodding questions about each line of the poems we read.  This is the same professor who introduced us to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature by way of asking us to take a quiz on the characteristics of a good reader, emphasizing the importance of re-reading texts for deeper understanding.

It’s this quest for deeper understanding I aimed for when leading my own students through complex texts during class discussions.  Without experience or strategies, facilitating classroom discussions with teenagers was challenging.  I gave it my best shot, modeling what my professor did when he led discussion rather than what my former high school teacher did.  Still, I struggled for the structure some classes of teenagers need, and I also struggled with strategies for ensuring students like me were participating.  The same few students typically had the most to say while others sat quietly.

Enter Shared Inquiry and the Great Books Foundation—my school received a grant to participate in trainings using the Shared Inquiry discussion method.  We learned how to facilitate discussions that were student centered and focused on deeper understandings of text.  We also learned how to establish procedures for ensuring all students participated.  From the beginning of our grant, I was a huge fan and later an advocate of Shared Inquiry because I saw the difference it made in my teaching and in my students’ understanding of the texts we discussed.   

Years later I had an additional opportunity to participate in a Paideia Seminar training.  Paideia and Shared Inquiry share several of the same goals and operate very similarly, except with Paideia you are not focused on a set curriculum like you are with Great Books/Shared Inquiry  (Honestly though, I used the Shared Inquiry method even when I wasn’t using the Great Books curriculum).

Here’s what I like about both discussion methods.

o   You focus on deep understanding of a text (print or non-print)
o   You let the students do the talking
o   You encourage everyone to participate by facing one another with name placards posted, and you (the teacher) join the circle, sometimes drawing out students
o   You have students set personal goals and have the group agree on a group discussion goal as well (e.g. refer to the text when talking, everyone speaks, build on the ideas of others, ask clarifying questions, use names of classmates etc.)
o   You map the discussion for use during reflection (see picture below)

o   You complete the bulk of your work pre-discussion when you create open-ended opening questions and possible questions to use if/when the conversation is dragging
o   You end the discussion on a high note—leaving students to want more
o   You encourage participation without requiring hands to be raised to speak
o   You allow silence and don’t try to fill it—you wait for students to speak (can be really tough and uncomfortable for everyone at first—but it’s great!)

Discussion of Autobiography of Malcolm X w/pre-service teachers

The best part of both discussion methods is that you never grow weary or bored, and you always look for opportunities to participate or facilitate discussions because the more you participate, the better you become at facilitating the discussions too.   Just last week I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion when I visited a history class at a local high school—a highlight of my week, for sure.

What about you—What are your favorite discussion methods?