Silent Discussions in the Classroom

farm to tableWe all know the benefits of discussion in the classroom whether it be teacher-led, Socratic, or any of the other effective strategies for getting kids talking. However, silent discussions can also be a powerful tool for active reading and learning. Silent discussions work well because:

  • All students participate. Classroom discussions can be monopolized by a few voices, and some students may not feel comfortable participating at all. Silent discussions ensure that everyone participates in the discussion.
  • It’s a great strategy for introverts, who tend to need some time to think before they respond and may prefer to do so in writing.
  • It allows for a record of the conversation that can be used for additional activities, as well as a handy record for teachers to assess the level of understanding of the entire class.

I’ve done silent discussions a couple of ways, and both of them work well. Here’s how to set them up in your classroom.

#1: Seated Silent DiscussionIMG_1215

  1. Divide your class into groups of four. You will want to set your room up in groups that make it easy to pass papers around.
  2. Find four different pieces of text for students to respond to and print them out with enough room around them to write. For this lesson, my students had four poems from Clint Smith III’s Counting Descent. Each group of four will need a set of the pieces of text. (Since it’s unlikely that you’ll have a class that can be split evenly into four groups, it’s okay to have a group of five. Someone will just sit out for one round.)
  3. Each person starts with a poem.  At this point, tell the class to be silent for the remainder of the activity. All of the discussion happens on the paper. They then have four minutes to read the poem and start a discussion about it. At this point, it’s important to tell students they are NOT annotating, but instead starting a discussion about it. They need to give the rest of the group something to respond to. I also tell them that they can’t write one comment and sit there for the rest of the four minutes. They should be interacting with the text the entire time.
  4. Sometimes it’s helpful to give them a few prompts, such as: what do you find interesting? What do you find strange? What do you like about what the author is doing with literary devices? What does this remind you of?
  5. Once the four minutes is up, they pass their paper to the next person. The process repeats, expect this time they are responding to what others have written during the four minutes they have been given.
  6. Repeat the process as many times as you want (or as class time allows) but I usually stop after every student has responded to each poem. Then we take a moment for everyone to read all the discussions for the other poems.
  7. With the Smith poems, we had about ten minutes left to discuss as a group. I asked some simple questions. Which poem had the most lively discussion and why? What were some common issues that were brought up in the poems? Because students are commented on a discussion that has already taken place and in which they were actively involved, everyone can easily respond to these questions.
  8. I collected the papers from the group and read them over as a quick formative assessment to see how they were doing with the poems.

#2: Big Paper Silent Discussions


I use this method with my freshmen and a series of poems dealing with mental health issues. You can find a great list of poems on this topic for teens (as well as other poems grouped thematically) here.

  1. For this silent discussion you’ll need to break your students up into groups of three and you’ll need one text for each group. For example, I have 24 students so I had eight groups, although I had one student missing so I had one group of two.
  2. Before class print off each text and mount it on a large sheet of paper, such as a piece of newsprint. We have big rolls of butcher paper so I used those.
  3. Tape or glue the texts to the big sheets of paper and place them around the room.
  4. Assign each group a text to start. Give them each a marker.
  5. Same rules as before. No talking, even within their group of three. I gave them three minutes to respond to each poem because freshmen during the last period of the day have shorter attention spans. The key difference in this method is they can respond to the poem AND to other people working in their group of three during their three minutes.
  6. Same as above, they may need some prompts to get the discussion going.
  7. At the end of the three minutes they rotated to the next station and the process continues. I didn’t have enough time to get through all eight rotations, but we did get through seven.
  8. Because we worked right up to the bell I left the poems up and the next day I had students return to their original poem and complete a few activities. Using the comments from the discussion for help I wanted them to determine the tone and provide two pieces of evidence that support their claim. (This is in preparation for the state tests, which ask these type of questions.)IMG_1226.jpg

Final Thoughts

Both methods work well. The chief drawback of the second method is you need to have more texts for students to work with, but I do like that they can comment within their groups so there’s a little silent dialogue that goes on there as well. Also, it gets the students moving around, which always seems to help my eighth-period class stay focused. Try both methods and see which one works for you.

Interested in online discussions? Read this post about how I make them work in my classroom: Online Discussions: Make Them Sizzle.

And if you are interested in making your Socratic seminars sizzle, check out this blog post about how I use that common discussion tool.

Learning should be fun! Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for fun resources like the ones you see below.


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