Monday, February 1, 2016

Some Reflections from Friday’s Unconference: Notes on How to Make Class Discussions More Successful

The Oakridge Unconference, Jan. 29, 2016
Last Friday, my school hosted an afternoon of professional development for educators both from our campus and from our sister schools in the surrounding area. The gathering was organized like an unconference where teachers, coaches, and administrators voluntarily facilitated ad hoc conversations on interest-based topics ranging from scheduling to tech integration to sessions about what books people are reading and why. It was a great day full of unexpected conversations with people I don’t normally get to spend time with on an average day of typical school scheduling. 

I decided to host a conversation on “Class Discussions: How Do We Make Them Successful,” and all the participants who attended had “a successful discussion” on the topic, helping me clarify some of the thoughts and strategies I've developed over years as I’ve continued to wrestle with this issue. How do we make class discussion more student-driven, evidence based, inclusive to all voices (including the shy kids), and therefore more empowering & meaningful for all? Here's some notes & reflections from the session:

1. Are we focusing more on teacher-preparedness or student-preparedness when planning a discussion-driven day of classes? 

Too often in my early years, I spent more energy and time making sure I ("the content expert") was prepared for the discussion by crafting thought-provoking questions, perhaps planning a kind of thematic arc to how it “should” unfold, and thereby delivering my prepped questions “charismatically” to inspire student buy-in. It took me a long time to realize that one key element to successful discussion is directing one’s energy and instructional design towards making sure students are prepared for the discussion (instead of worrying about my preparedness). I started using google docs and online discussions, for instance, to provide questions ahead of time, to get students gathering their thoughts as well as examples of evidence before they're on the spot the next day in class. If using online discussion threads, I like to have the highlights from the online conversation on the digital projector when the students enter the room. They're always eager to share when they've spent time thinking about it the night before; it's like they want you and the others to see what they have accomplished. Google docs is also useful for disseminating questions well ahead of time, and I encourage students to leave comments about which questions they feel confident about as well as which ones they're less comfortable answering (it gives me instant feedback about strengths, weaknesses, needs, etc...)

A quick note: go here to read more about methods I’ve used, involving google docs, to better prepare and empower students before the class discussion ever takes place.

2. What measures are we taking as teachers to make sure students feel safe and comfortable when taking the risk to voice their thoughts and feelings? 

Preliminary Small Group Talks as Prep for Class Discussion
I think we forget how scary it is to offer a reading, interpretation, or feeling about some difficult academic topic and to have to do so in front of one’s peers as well as one’s teacher (who will be giving a grade at the end of the 9 weeks…). Students need space, time, and (as stated before) preparation to feel comfortable enough to even gather their thoughts, much less to articulate them in front of an audience. In the unconference session we all agreed that time moves differently for us as teachers, and we have to remind ourselves to slow down and to allow the lingering silence, even if it feels awkward or like a waste of precious class time. (It’s not a waste, by the way, because these are the invaluable moments when students are given time to do the thinking for themselves.) As stated before, it’s important to also let the students prepare (again, I think of flipped classroom techniques like google docs or online discussions). For instance, I like to organize students into smaller groups to have a kind of brainstorming conversation beforehand in a safer environment of 3 or 4 peers. Joel Garza once modeled for me another simple but profoundly effective technique where one gives the shier, less confident student a gentle 5-10 minute warning that he will be asked to speak on question X in the next few minutes, thereby giving them time to think it through. A simple nudge or warning does wonders for the anxious student.

3. Who are the students speaking to in the class discussion? Are they speaking to the teacher or are they speaking and listening to each other? 

My current seating design for my classroom; students sit on
the outside and inside of the circle of connected tables
How do we get students to quit talking to the teacher and to engage their peers instead? The first thing that was brought up in reaction to this question was the issue of classroom design. How we arrange our classrooms communicates a lot to students about our expectations of how they should interact with the teacher and their peers. Letting students push around and arrange easily-movable furniture to suit the learning occasion is ideal (if you ask me), but unfortunately, some teachers have no control over the design of classrooms and have to do their best with what they’ve got. In fact, one teacher in our session proclaimed that she was this close to unbolting the tables and chairs in her room... Another response that took the the form of a question was the following: Who is constructing/asking the questions in the class discussion? We all agreed that to have successful, meaningful class conversations we as teachers have to cede control to empower students to create the questions for each other. In my class I divide students into groups of four, assigning a chunk of a novel (or whatever) to each group, such that when a designated section of the reading is due the group assigned to that material has to have posted (24 hours ahead of time) at least five questions (usually on a google doc) for the class; this again allows the other students the proper time to prepare for the anticipated discussion. Many thanks to Joel Garza for helping me develop such methods! I once invited Mr. Garza to guest-teach my sophomore English class at Oakridge, and he employed another technique that I’ve continued to use to get students to engage each other instead of me (and it works everytime…). He divided the room in half, and one set of students got the following prompt for the day’s discussion: what I need to know about last night’s reading is ______________. The other half of the class were told to explore the opposite prompt: what I definitely know about last night’s reading is ______________. Each group discussed their prompts separately and then came together to sound off their main talking points, and discussion took off naturally and without hesitation. We simply leaned back and enjoyed the exchange.

4. With so many individuals in the room, how are we keeping everyone engaged, especially the quiet student? 

One thing I always do when facilitating a class discussion is I assign one or two students to be the scribe or note-taker for the day. I usually encourage them to log on to the google doc where the student-created questions have been posted for the day and instruct them to take notes in the form of detailed bullet points under the relevant prompt being addressed in class. When conducting inner/outer circle formats, Jason Kern suggested (in our session) providing a back channel for the students who are not currently part of the active conversation (Again, I use google docs for this, but one could use TodaysMeet or Chatzy for such a thing). The students using the back channel can take notes or exchange commentary about the inner circle discussion taking place. If possible, put the note-taker’s or the outer circle’s recorded thoughts on a digital projector so everything is visible to all participants during class. These kinds of alternative forms of engagement can also be a way to bring the quieter student into the conversation without making him feel like he's completely left his comfort zone. 
Screen Capture of a Student-Scribe's Notes from a Class Discussion on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
***Note: Go here to learn more about "Five Platforms for a Classroom Back-channel Chat" from Richard Byrne's blog.

5. What do you do with the discussions once they’re done? Does it end there? 

If students are being provided time and space to prepare (via google docs or discussion threads) as well as being given tasks (such as serving as a scribe), there’s going to be a written record of the knowledge the class has constructed together. With this in mind, make use of that written record: I recommend having students cite each other in a future paper/written-response assignment for two important reasons: (1) it empowers the student whose words or ideas are being cited, thereby making her feel heard, valued, and affirmed, and (2) it gets the students to practice digital literacy and citizenship by having them learn how to cite an online document or discussion thread correctly. I’ve used the students’ language from the notes and threads on exams, essay prompts, and quizzes before as well, which I think provides a sense of relevancy for them. It’s not just a come-and-go activity never to be revisited: it’s connected to a greater arc of inquiry that’s taking place all semester.  

Friday's session was an enlightening conversation for everyone involved, but we were definitely left with questions to reflect upon and explore at greater length. Here's some to ponder:

1. What are other methods or best practices to better engage and empower the shy student?
2. Should every student be “forced” to participate in class discussions even if it makes them anxious and uncomfortable? Why or why not?
3. How do you handle the overly-eager student who wants to dominate the discussion?
4. Should one assess student discussion in the form of grades, and if so, what specifically is one assessing?

Please help us keep the conversation from Friday’s unconference alive and moving forward by providing a comment below!


  1. Thanks for this post! Today I employed an idea I found years ago: the silent discussion. Print out, say, eight different excerpts from the night's reading, and tape these to different desks around the room. Have pairs of students re-read and annotate the excerpts for five minutes and then move onto another excerpt. Do that, say, three times. For the fourth rotation, ask students to read the passage and all of the previous annotations. Turn the paper over and on the back write two statments: 1. "One of the cool annotations we read was... because..." 2. "One thing we still don't get, though, is... because..."
    Thanks again for all of the resources and explanations here!

  2. Joel! Thank you, AGAIN, for sharing more ideas for how to get students engaged WITH EACH OTHER. And I love the idea of of a silent discussion, and I'm thinking of the silent student here. Too much noise in the room leaves little space for slower, deeper thinking. I'm going to try this technique this week!