Get ‘em Talking: How to Spark and Assess Classroom Discussion

Perhaps now more than ever, it is imperative that students learn how to have effective, productive, meaningful, and authentic conversations. We live in a world where the models students have for debate and discussion are troubling, to say the least. (See any cable news opinion-based program.)

There are three things to avoid when holding classroom discussions:

  1. Straight-up arguing, name-calling, interrupting, etc. That’s just not acceptable at any time, but especially when you are trying to teach how to have a discussion.
  2. Crickets. Is there anything more awkward that that? It seriously gives me shivers just thinking about it.
  3. When students speak the minimum number of times required and that’s it. That is the most inauthentic way to have a conversation and we all feel it.

In order to avoid all those situations, I have teamed up with a group of teachers who have shared their tried-and-true ways to hold classroom discussions that never revert to name-calling, nary an insect in the room, and full of authentic ideas.

Let’s get started!

Observe, Reflect, Improve

In the first month of school, I tell students they are going to have a discussion on an open-ended topic while I sit in the back of the room and just watch and take notes.

I post the topic on the board (usually something related to their summer reading and 100% opinion-based), clarify any questions, and move to my spot outside of the discussion circle.

As you might guess, its chaos. They all talk over each other, a few people try to dominate, a leader will encourage established a system for everyone to speak, and, overall, they hear nothing other than what comes out of their own mouth.

After 10-15 minutes, I stop the “discussion” and have them reflect on how it felt. Fortunately, they always say it was awful and unproductive and frustrating. That admission makes my job MUCH easier!

The next day, I show them the observations I had about their discussion. I type up the notes and display them on the projector. Without fail, I hear “Oh yeah. I totally yelled that.” and “I was interrupted so many times!” and “I only got to say one thing and I had SO MUCH more to say!”

They readily admit to what I observed and noted. Next, I put up specific goals for their class. I limit the goals to 3-4 so as not to overwhelm them.

One of the most important goals is using Language Bridges. This is a list of phrases they can use to build off of what others say. (Can you say more about…? I heard you say… I disagree with… because… I would like to add…) They sound (and feel!) so grown up using them and it forces them to truly listen to each other and respond thoughtfully.

Other goals might include: refrain from talking only with their neighbor, invite a quieter person to speak up after you have shared multiple times, and keep devices off your desk to limit distractions.

I keep the goals up, post a new discussion question (open-ended, opinion-based, rooted in a shared text or current event. See Samantha’s examples below!), take up my spot in the back, and observe.

As you might have guessed, the conversation goes WAY better! They listen to each other, take turns, learn to use nonverbal cues to show they want to jump in, and build off of what their classmates say.

The next day, I post a chart that looks like this:

Needs WorkGood Work
* Interrupting someone who is speaking
* Small conversations with neighbor and not the whole group
*Back up points with evidence from the text
* Using “I agree…” to build off of someone’s idea
* Asking questions to the class to get other people to talk
Next time, let’s try: 
Inviting others to speak 
Using nonverbal cues to indicate you want to say something
Staying focused on the speaker
Using a “language bridge” to connect to other people’s ideas

The best part of this work at the beginning of the year? After a few rounds, students begin to internalize the guidelines and appreciate how it feels to be in a good conversation that is void of yelling, crickets, and lame-o comments.

Structured Discussions

Sometimes getting students to talk about the content you’d actually like them to talk about can be challenging. When you pose a question to the group and all you get in return is crickets, it can feel like the entire lesson is tanking quickly. When you have a class that needs a little more structure in their discussion, Samantha from Samantha in Secondary suggests you try speed debating! This technique is especially effective during an argumentative unit, but really it can be adapted for use anytime. (Just change the name to speed discussion and roll with it!)

Here’s how it works:

1.       Create engaging prompts for your students to use. (Check out Samantha’s set of argumentative writing prompts right here if you want to save time!)

2.       Make sure you give students these explicit instructions orally and also keep them up on the board for the duration of the activity.  

3.       Give each student a letter- an “A” group and a “B” group. That way when you’re assigning sides (affirmative and negative), students easily know which side they should be arguing.

4.       Pose the question and give students a few minutes to jot down their initial ideas.

5.       Use a timer for speed debating. I’ve found that giving each side two minutes to make their case in three specific sections (introduction, rebuttal, closure) keeps things moving.

6.       Up the ante for more advanced debaters by requiring them to use specific techniques in their debates. (Start with ethos, pathos, and logos and then add more when they can handle them.)

7.       Pick a new prompt then rinse and repeat!

This is an exceptionally inclusive activity that helps give everyone in the class a chance to flex their argument skills while still holding them accountable for participation. Try it out! 

Big Paper Silent Discussions in Small Groups

Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 loves classroom discussion but sometimes it’s difficult to get everyone involved. To address the shy or more reluctant students she uses silent discussions. Here’s how:

  1. Decide the discussion’s focus. Is it based on a text with specific questions? Is it a short text (poem, excerpt, news article or these discussion cards) and students address in a free-form way?
  2. Create the set-up. If it’s a text with questions, provide the text and then put questions on chart paper. If it’s a shorter text for students to discuss freely, paste a copy onto chart paper. Qa
  3. Create small groups (3-4) and provide students with different colored pens/markers. Students write their names in the color to create accountability to quickly see who writes what.
  4. Provide guidelines: They can create a new question thread or build on others’. It should all be done in silence – no questions or chatting out loud.
  5. Set a time limit. Give 10 minutes, including reading the short text and extend, if needed.
  6. Want to extend beyond the initial group? Students can visit other groups to participate in different discussions. (Suggestion: If groups of 4, 2 students move to the group on to the left and 2 to the group to the right. A remix option to continue the conversation.)

If you like you can shift from silent to out loud discussion but you’ve first given everyone a chance to ‘chat’ and to share their ideas!

Incorporate Movement

To help her students open up and feel more comfortable sharing, Katie from Mochas and Markbooks has found that incorporating movement into her lessons has made all the difference.

When students have the opportunity to get out of their seat and move around the classroom, sharing ideas feels less like school work and more like socializing.

Some tried and true methods to get students up and talking include: 

  1. Four Corners Activity – Place four varying opinions on a topic in each corner of the room. Students move to the corner they most align with and discuss with their fellow peers.
  2. Carousel Activity – Students are placed in groups and move around the room in a circular fashion like a carousel, stopping at different prompts and tasks for discussion or reflection as a group. Having groups write a response at each prompt also gives each subsequent group the opportunity to engage with their ideas as well.
  3. Escape Rooms – Whether digital or set up in the classroom, escape rooms require groups to interact and communicate. Even the quietest student is bound to get in on the fun!
  4. Get Some Fresh Air! – Take your class outside when the weather is nice. Bring blankets and set up on the grass like a picnic to have class discussion – bonus if you also bring some picnic snacks!

If you’d like more movement ideas for the classroom, check out this blog post on group work strategies that will get your students talking!

Jamboards and Student-Led Discussion

For discussions, Yaddy from Yaddy’s Room loves to have students read a text and then create questions from question stems. Over the years, she has found that doing this leads to student-led discussions and is perfect when you want to impress administrators. Gradual release of responsibility is the unicorn of teaching, with teachers loving the idea but struggling to make it reality.

By using question stems, teachers can still frame the conversation as academic and standards-based, while allowing students to control the topic of conversation. This helps, especially when working with students who may not identify with the characters or narrative.

To get students talking, Yaddy follows these five steps:

1)      Students post questions on a Google Jamboard: for the Jamboard, Yaddy sets up a sticky built into the Jamboard with links to higher order question stems so that students have a guide and don’t end up on easy yes or no questions.

2)      Students pick a question and answer it in a Google Doc: this provides students with accountability. Even if they might not answer in a whole group or even small group discussion, you can still access what they understand from the discussion and how they are reasoning.

3)      Students answer questions in a small group: low risk, high reward! Yaddy likes to tell students to think of the small group as a rehearsal for whole group discussion, so that they can work out the kinks in what they want to talk about, and maybe even find another cool point to talk about.

4)      Students answer questions in a whole group: this is the culminating activity. After students have been given two opportunities to put their thoughts down, they are eager to talk with others about the discussion topic.

5)      Students fill out a Google form for closure: with the closure form, teachers can ask questions reflecting on the students’ experiences during the activity (What did you do well? What do you need improvement on? How do you think you’d participate differently next time?) or ask closure questions regarding the discussion topic itself.

If you want more detailed information on her method, you can click here to read a blog post about it or click here to grab her question stems here

Discussion Stems Game

A few years ago, Olivia from Distinguished English put discussion-stem posters on her walls and was happy to see her students engage in civil and meaningful conversations—at first. She began to notice that while students continued to use appropriate discussion stems in the classroom, their conversations and arguments in the hallways were as chaotic as ever! She brainstormed ways to help students remember their discussion stems when they were NOT able to look up and see them on her classroom wall, and she came up with the discussion-stem game:

Start with a list of discussion stems you would like your students to use in their discussions. You can write your favorite discussion stems on index cards, or you can use pre-made game cards. Be sure to include a variety of discussion stems for agreement, disagreement, and clarification. It’s also not a bad idea to throw in a few discussion stems that students should NOT use! Next, divide students into teams and give each team a set of cards. Set a timer and let them race to sort the cards into stems for agreement, stems for disagreement, stems for clarification, and stems to avoid. Because this game forces students to really analyze the discussion stems and their purpose, it engages their long-term memory more than just a poster on the wall, helping them to engage in meaningful conversations wherever they may be.

A New Kind of Fishbowl

Molly from The Littlest Teacher was often hesitant to host classroom discussions, for a number of reasons: she was worried about possible low participation, lulls in the discussion, or maybe even the discussion derailing into a casual, unrelated conversation.

Here is a simple-but-practical set up for a classroom discussion that encourages participation, keeps discussion on track, and even allows you to assess and assign a score to students for this activity.

  • Write or type discussion questions on index cards or strips of paper. Fold them up, and place them in a bowl. 
  • Prepare a roster of student names with space to take notes beside each name, or create a discussion map like this one
  • Have students arrange their chairs in a circle so that they can all see and hear one another.
  • Students will pass the bowl of questions. Each student can choose up to two questions to answer. He must read aloud and answer one of the two questions he has drawn. 
  • Once the question is read and answered, several other students should chime in, answering the question that was read, or responding to the answer that was given. 
  • As students participate in the discussion, make notes next to their name about the level of their participation and the number of times they are contributing to the discussion. 
  • Once the discussion time is winding down, and there are only a few questions left, you may want to read the names of students who haven’t participated much in the discussion to let them know that this is their last chance to participate. (This may not be appropriate according to your classroom culture; some students might find this embarrassing, and of course, that would never be the goal.)
  • If you’d like to assign a grade for this activity, after the discussion concludes, review your notes for each student, and give them a score based upon your learning objectives for this activity.

Use Current Events

Current events aren’t just for the Social Studies teacher!  Carolyn from Middle School Café incorporates a current event discussion in her ELA class a couple of times a term.  Current event discussions provide a real life example of reading nonfiction text, as well as, provide a cross curricular activity. 

In today’s political climate, Carolyn has easily been able to find relevant non fiction texts regarding both national and local issues her students care about.  She utilized the local newspaper, as well as, sites such as Newsforkids.net or SmithsonialTweenTribune.com.

Using Current Events in your class does take a few days to facilitate.  Carolyn utilizes two days of class.

Day #1 – Prep

  • Introduce the topic of the article – depending on the topic of the article you may need to preteach/review the issue with students.
  • Read the article – Reading the article more than once, will help students understand the article.  Carolyn often has students read on their own or with a partner, then Carolyn read the article again with the class. This gives students the opportunity to read a life example of nonfiction before having dig deeper into it. 
  • Summary – While this isn’t necessary once the students understand the process, Carolyn finds it helpful to have students write a summary the first few times through the process.
  • Take notes – Students should take notes and/or mark the text for key ideas.  Carolyn does this with her students at the beginning of the year and slowly releases responsibility to her students to complete on their own near the end of the term.
  • Questions – Since students don’t always know how to talk about current events, Carolyn has found it helpful to have students write out questions ahead of time.  This gives students the opportunity to think about the discussion before they are in the discussion. 

Day #2 – Discussion Day!

  • Discussion day can take on many forms, but when just starting, Carolyn finds it better to hold a whole class discussion and work her way to small group discussion once students are comfortable talking with their peers.  To help guide the students into a conversation, Carolyn finds it helpful to preselect a few students to share their summary or questions.  Since the topics are current, most students have something to say about them.

It is important, especially in a middle school ELA classroom, that students have time to think and prepare ahead of time for a discussion.  Finding topics, such as relevant, current events are a great way to provide a real world experience for reading nonfiction text. 

A “Conversessment”

As a student, Staci from Donut Lovin’ Teacher would have benefited from this opportunity to talk her way through an assessment, and your students can too! A collaborative conversation gives your students a chance to practice norms and discuss a specific topic–all as part of an assessment. Although she has yet to come up with a fun name other than (maybe Conversessment?), Staci found that the structure of a Collaborative Conversation provided her students with an opportunity to practice some of the same skills as a multiple choice test or even essay. Students can “perform” their discussion as a small group or by using the fishbowl strategy. Either way, the assessment focuses on writing, speaking, and listening skills!

So how does a Collaborative Conversation work?

First, pinpoint a topic. What question will students answer? Try the guiding question for your unit. Next, show them the sources! Students should have plenty of time to read and respond to multiple pieces of text. Think double-entry journal format, centered around the guiding question. With plenty of time in advance, make sure to review the rubric. Just like you would with any writing piece or assessment, it is important for students to know how they are being graded. Provide a rubric like this one that utilizes the CCSS listening and speaking standards.

Staci found that a key part of the collaborative discussion was preparation time for the students. Just like one might give a practice test or a study guide, it is important for students to practice their collaborative conversation, especially if students are building confidence around speaking in front of their peers. Staci provided students with opportunities for “dress rehearsal” so they knew what to expect for their live-action version of their discussion.

Lastly, with abbreviated copies of the rubric, set a timer and let your students do the talking. If your student discussion is structured with the fishbowl strategy, students can even provide feedback to one another!

Meaningful Discussions with Student Interest and Games

Get the students talking in your classroom! Sharena from The Humble Bird Teacher uses student interest and games to get her class discussing. 

Student Interests

First, have your students complete a survey of their interests. Next, place those interests on index cards and fold them up. Then place them in a small container with a lid. The next time you have a class discussion with your students pull out the container and give it a good shake. Ask one of your questions from your selection by replacing it with a person or place from the student interest bowl. For example, if your question is about a character in a book or person in an article, you can replace that character’s name or person’s name with a celebrity that your students like and ask how it would be different or similar if Lizzo was the character? Or if the setting was Disney World, or a place in Fortnite? 

Games

Sharena’s drawing conclusions and inference games help her students think critically and analyze. They have deep discussions about who did it, and why? These games always get her students talking for days. Find out more about them here

Paideia + Parlay = A Discussion Match Made in Heaven 

Education over time has looked a lot like a teacher lecturing at the front of the room and students quietly taking notes and then working independently on assignments. However, the game is changing, and rightfully and beautifully so. From a lot more collaborative work, to engaging games, to countless digital incorporations, many classrooms are shifting to student-led learning, and classroom discussions are a great tool in continuing this trend. Especially given the pandemic, discussions are also a useful resource for reigniting students’ social skills, which many of them lost over the past few years.   

Ana at Simply Ana P currently teaches at a Paideia school, which advocates for critical and creative thinking through Paideia Socratic Seminars. These seminars are defined as “collaborative intellectual dialogue facilitated with open-ended questions about a text” and include “multiple close readings of a chosen text prior to discussion, formal speaking and listening during the seminar itself, and [a] post-seminar writing process” (Paideia National Center). 

Ana has her students complete this process in the middle of a novel or unit and at the end. She most recently completed a seminar on the first half of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with chapter 15 of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy as a supplementary text. To access the resources she provided her students with for this process which took 4 days total – 1 for chapter 15 reading + annotation, 1 for pre-seminar prep, 1 for the actual seminar day, and 1 for the writing taskCLICK HERE

However, even if the format is not Paideia, Ana advocates that any type of collaborative discussion that can be completed in classes is sufficient and necessary. The prep work should be intentional and can be a little time-consuming, but the impactful outcome makes it worthwhile. 

Lastly, Ana has also used Parlay as a fantastic digital tool for seminars. This platform is free to join, houses space for discussion questions and student notes, and tracks individual and whole-class participation throughout the discussion. At the end, the teacher is provided with exportable analytics and can share the feedback with the class and/or use it for grading and reflection purposes.

OK-now you have 11 incredible ways to spark conversation in your classroom and help change the way we have public discourse. On behalf of everyone in the world, thank you for teaching future generations how to listen, respond, and truly move the conversation forward!

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