By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan: two teachers challenging classroom status quo
James Britton claimed that reading and writing lean on discussion, but it’s not just talk that students need; it’s academic conversations that teachers thoughtfully facilitate:
- Teachers of high-achieving students spent about 55 percent of the class time talking, compared with 80 percent for teachers of low-achieving students (Flanders, 1983; Frey, 2010).
We applaud the 55% student conversations for high-achieving students. And we understand why teachers of striving students conclude that some students aren’t ready for academic discussions because of off-task behavior. Still, we have our own version of Oregon’s 40/40/20 for our classrooms:
We’ve been writing a lot about how to get students to do solo, supported reading, writing, viewing, and reflection in our previous posts, and you may even have a sense of our teacher talk, which tends to be conferring over lecturing. But until now, we’ve been mum on facilitating discussion and how it ties into close reading. That’s about to change….
Teacher Greg Graham makes a good case against unstructured small group work and group brainstorming in his article “Why I no Longer Use Groups in the Classroom.” We don’t disagree with Graham’s findings, but we do think most teachers misstep when it comes to class discussion. Why? Effective group work is advanced teaching. We’ve had plenty of missteps throughout our learning processes. We get it: a lot can go wrong with small group discussions. Rather than confess our patterns of errors in public, we offer what we’ve learned about effective small group discussion:
- Start small: 30-second bursts to one-minute discussions. Teenagers aren’t adults. They don’t know academic discourse, and they don’t have the stamina yet. You’re about to change that with a patient watchful eye and a clear path. As students get stronger and more independent, gradually allot students more discussion time.
- Set up behaviors with an anchor chart (image to the right).
- Build student reflection into the process throughout the term.
- Focus on academic behavior over content for the first 4-5 small group discussions and gradually increase the rigor. We did the same move with close reading; see Slow Sprints post.
Students brainstorm icebreaker conversations for easy September talk as they learn to “share the air” and “change your mind when logically persuaded.” Non-Academic topics: favorite movie, places we’ve traveled, favorite sports, favorite music, part-time jobs, Coke vs. Pepsi and so on.
After setting boundaries with the anchor chart (we review those boundaries before each break out session until we observe students internalizing the moves we want), set up the groups in teams of 4-5 students, and let students discuss a low-level topic for 3-4 minutes. Joan’s students use a membership grid to track discussions (see above).
When we notice students wilting, we call the class back together, even if the 3-4 minutes aren’t up yet. Too many students conclude that small group work means they get to watch other people work. Not good. We don’t want students practicing non-academic behavior in our classrooms.
When the discussion is over, teach students how to quickly come back to the whole class to debrief the process (behaviors at this point) and any issues. Turn the issues into lessons to add to the anchor chart: “get started right away” was an important behavior in Joan’s striving readers classes. Harvey Daniels’ work and Gail Boushey’s and Joan Moser’s Daily Five make those issues easier to see and to transform into behaviors that transform students into academic thinkers.
Finally, have students reflect on their group’s success. Evaluate the Discussion is one tool, but a one-minute essay on an index card works well too (good talk = I am thinking more; I am thinking differently; I have more words to express my thoughts). We dedicate 15-20 minutes three times a week to small group discussion processes. Students get skilled in academic conversations, but it takes careful facilitation on our parts and a keen sense of skill progression. Eventually, our students will be ready for the self-reflection Matt Copeland requires of his students in his Socratic Circles book.
- Largest Margin in the World
- Silent Discussion Thread
- Conversation Logs / Dialectical Notebooks / Double-entry Notebook
- Anticipation Guide with Discussion—more advanced than it first appears
- Save the Last Word for Me
- Discussion Cards—we’ll post a better secondary example by Laura Robb when we get back to our classrooms in January.
- Hot Seat Activity
- Emotional Timelines for Characters
- Advice Letters to Character
- Lessons we Learned From Characters, Narrators, Plot
- Character Resumes
- Character Tattoos
Do we facilitate all these moves for one class? Nope. Less is more, remember? Joan uses the top four activities from the list. She’ll use the other activities once a year because students like the novelty of something new.
Basically, we follow a solo-small group-solo pattern for our classroom framework. That is, students read and create a rough draft (low-stakes writing) of their thinking before discussing their thinking in small groups. After discussion, students add to or amend their thinking (slightly higher stakes writing), which includes academic language and evidence. Sometimes the process ends there. Other times we push students further into formal, academic writing (high-stakes). When our classes were small, we pushed for five academic essays per term. With classes swelling to 35-40 students, we rely on low-stakes writing and discussions with two-three academic essays per term.
What grows students’ thinking and literacy is that we do small group discussion moves throughout the term, and we do our best to give students constructive advice on how to keep growing as we strive for our 40/40/20.
- Close Reading Texts and the Question of Rigor (edumcation.wordpress.com)
- More Close Reading Resources- Happy Holidays! (nsdliteracyblog.wordpress.com)