Painful Class Discussions? Here’s the Cure

class discussions

We all know that discussions are an essential skill for students. However, we sometimes forget that it isn’t something that comes naturally to them, and must be taught. It can frustrating working through all dead silence and awkward pauses while we wait for the class discussion to take off. And sometimes it doesn’t happen.

I spend a lot of time trying to find creative ways to make my class discussions better, whether it be to tinker with Socratic seminars or to have students write 200-word discussion questions. I’m also a big fan of silent discussions and online discussions. However, sometimes the best changes are the small changes that you can add to your existing practice. I’m always amazed at how the smallest tweaks can achieve big results. Below are some new strategies for classroom discussions that are quick to implement and might just get your students talking.

Write First (and Last)

Before we discuss as a class I like to have students free write on the discussion questions for a couple of minutes before we start. This serves two purposes. First, it allows them to process the question and gather their thoughts. Second, it ensures that everyone has something to say before we begin. We all have those students who will gladly take over a classroom discussion because they think quickly and are eager to participate, and they can overwhelm the students who need more time to process what they think. Writing before discussing ensures that the students who take a little time to process questions — those kids who aren’t the best to call on first, but are good to call on third or fourth — get an equal chance.

I also do this with small group discussions as well. In small groups, I either give them a list of discussion questions or have them create their own. Someone in the group presents a question and everyone writes for a couple of minutes before they respond. This prevents hitchhikers — those students who just sit in the group and passively take it all in and again also helps those students who need time to think to be able to participate. Everyone can contribute based on how they responded to the prompt.

Four in the Hall

Four in the Hall is a small group discussion method that gives students ownership of what they discuss. It won’t work for every class or every topic, but with the right group and the right subject, this can be a fun way to run a class discussion for a period.

Divide the class into groups of four or five (or however many you’d like to have in your discussion groups). Each group will then elect a delegate to go out into the hall. As the delegates wait in the hall for their instructions, I have the students that remain in the classroom do something easy and creative, like draw a self-portrait of themselves with a single line. NEver pass up an opportunity to do something creative!

I then go out in the hall and give the delegates the topic that I want them to discuss. For example, after reading the first few chapters of The Namesake I wanted the class to discuss what we learn about the immigrant experience. The delegates then create four or five discussion questions that they will bring back to their groups to discuss to arrive at an answer the topic.

Once the delegates have settled on their questions, they return from the hall to their groups and give the groups the discussion questions. I never ask the delegates what their questions are to preserve their ownership fo the process (but you could do that). At the end of the discussion – usually 15-20 minutes or so – I then ask them as a whole class what the four topics were and how they responded.

Students like this strategy because they feel in control of the process. They know that I don’t have a preconceived notion of what I’d like them to discuss because they get to determine the topics without my input. And if you do this in multiple classes, you’ll be surprised how different their discussion questions can be.

Record It

The benefit of having students record their discussions is that it harnesses their desire to create content. They have to produce something. Every time I have done this, the discussions have gone about ten times better than just asking them to discuss something, and having an end product seems to be the key to getting better results.

Because we are a 1:1 school, I can have students use the Explain Everything app on their iPads. However, a student can just as easily record the discussion on their phone as long as there is a way to submit it to you.

The instructions are simple. I give them prompts (usually six) a day in advance so they can be prepared for the discussion. If you are using lit circles for independent reading, I like to use questions like these. Then I give them class time to record a discussion about those questions. If they are having a good conversation and don’t get to all of them in the time provided, that’s fine — the point is to work on conversation skills while having something to discuss. They are also able to pause the recording as much as they want to in order to gather themselves and figure things out.

You’ll want to do a practice round for this because most of them will be terrible at it at first. The first time we recorded discussions the students only averaged about five minutes of discussion during one hour, mainly because they spent way more time planning the discussion than discussing! However, this was a great chance for us to work as a class to figure out how to do a task better.

For example, we set some goals. We wanted fifteen minutes of recording in which the groups had lots of interaction with each other. We also wanted to do less stopping and starting of recordings. I had a group that stopped and started 27 times! Fortunately the second time they were able to meet their goals and recorded 15 minutes or more in one class period instead of the two periods it took the first time.

Unless you have students record a video, you’ll want to have students using names frequently so that you know who is speaking (a big problem in single-gender groups) so you know that everyone participated. Also, you want to make sure that they are actually having a discussion and not just doing a round-robin and reading their answers to the questions.

Grading Discussions

Although I don’t grade every discussion, they are a great way to address speaking and listening standards in a way that is measurable. For discussions about literature I created a simple discussion rubric using these (slightly revised) standards:

  • Come to discussions prepared, having read the assigned pages from your book; draw on that preparation by referring to specific parts of the novel to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
  • Keep the conversation going by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.
  • Work with peers to set rules for the discussion, establish clear goals and deadlines, and assign individual roles as needed.

Follow up

Processing discussions is important! A great exit slip for all of these methods is to have students process the discussion in writing afterward. How do you think differently about the topic? What was everyone in agreement on? If they came up with their own discussion questions, were their common threads that everyone wanted to talk about? How did you participate?

Use the exit slips to go over the important ideas that were brought up (and give a shout out to groups that addressed them) and to find out what important points were missed in the conversation that need to be covered.

I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!

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