The Silent Discussion: An Effective Strategy to Engage All Students

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At the start of a new semester or new school year it can sometimes be difficult to get students to jump in and participate in a class discussion. I’ve found that the silent discussion can be an effective technique to use to get all students to participate. There is a low risk for the students because names are not attached to the discussion, and it allows them time to think before they respond. They are not competing with other students to have their voice heard. This discussion style works especially well when paired with a short story or a novel. The example I’m using is from The Good Earth, a novel taught in junior level English.

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Planning and Preparation: Before students can discuss, I choose quotations from the text that are impacting or provocative. These quotes are then typed out and centered on a single sheet of paper. I try to leave plenty of room for students to write. I’ve also found it helpful to have more quotations than students, that way when it comes time to move desks, the students aren’t waiting for someone to finish.

The process: When students walk into the room, I ask them to take a seat at a desk or table with a quotation. First, they read the quotation to themselves. They are then asked to underline important, powerful words, or words that have a strong connotative meaning. After they have done several questions: Why this passage is important? What does the quote contribute to the meaning of the work? Why is it significant? The students will then write a statement somewhere on the page to share why they think the quotation is significant. The next step is for students to generate a question pertaining to the quotation that will get their peers thinking. This question is written somewhere on the paper.

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After students finish writing their question it is time to move to another quotation. They will begin the process a second time with me walking them through the steps. You will notice that students may double or triple underline the same words, or they may select new words all together. An additional step I add is that students will now comment or answer the question/s provided by their peers. After a second time of reading, commenting, and questioning, with my direct instruction, students then go through the process on their own.

There is no set number of times for students to rotate through the quotations – it depends on time and number of students in the class. I usually allow a minimum of 10-15 minutes for them to complete this part of the discussion. After students have looked at the last quote, they will then return to their original seat. I allow them time to look at the responses and to see how their discussion grew as their peers responded. The discussion can end there if you choose.

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Next Steps: I will often take the discussion further with the students by placing them into small groups. Once in small groups, they read the quotation out loud and share an intriguing question or comment that was written by a classmate.

If you wanted to take the discussion one more step, I often ask the smaller groups to choose one of their quotations and create a discussion question from their small group conversation to get their classmates thinking.

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Begin the Year with Poetry

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For most of my career, I’ve saved poetry for the end of the year in my English classes. I did this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I LOVE poetry, and I tend to motivate myself by saving the best for last. Also, a poetry unit can be expanded or contracted to fit that awkward few weeks I often get left with in May – not enough time to start a novel, but way too long to just sit around watching movies. But, if I’m being honest with myself, my biggest reason for holding off on poetry was avoidance of the reactions of many of my students. When first confronted with poetry, the general consensus of my classes – at least the most vocal of them – is not an exclamation of joy. Introvert that I am, it is enough of a challenge getting to know a whole new crop of fresh young faces without additionally embarking on a journey as personal as poetry. However, I realized last year that the personal nature of poetry is exactly what makes it perfectly suited for the beginning of the year. … KEEP READING

The Poisonwood Bible

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For the past few years, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver has been my summer reading, and I suspect it will remain that way for a while. This book, along with Frankenstein, are the two books that will probably never move off my reading list. TPB chronicles a story of an evangelical missionary family moving from Bethlehem, GA to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The story of the mother and daughters striving to gain independence and freedom from the tyrannical father parallel the struggle within Africa. Having over 500 pages, I assign this book for summer work along with How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Foster. Here are some of the reasons I love teaching The Poisonwood Bible:

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Annotation for Smarties – 5 Tips for Teaching Students Active Reading and Critical Thinking

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“How many of you have ever gotten to the end of a page of assigned reading, and realized you have no idea what you just read?”

Every year, I pose this question to my English classes, and every year, just about every hand goes up, including mine. I share with my students that there have been several times, even recently, that I’ve realized I have absorbed absolutely nothing of what I thought I just read, this, despite 16 years of teaching and a lifetime of being an avid reader. It’s the discovery of why this happens that led me to one of the most successful strategies I use to help my students become close readers: annotation.

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On Embracing Discourse

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When I took on the challenge of becoming a National Board Certified teacher in 2000, I videotaped myself for the “Whole Class Discussion” portfolio entry.

It was a dismal affair.  It featured a teacher pitching vague questions that went nowhere, followed by some that were enthusiastically answered by the two or three extroverts in the room. The rest of the students busied themselves picking lint off their clothing.

Luckily, board certification is primarily reflective.  My reflection indicated that this was an area where I needed help—fast.

That was 16 years ago, but correcting this one problem lead to a continual search for strategies that let students lead their own learning. It has been well worth the journey. … KEEP READING

Tone Hunt

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To switch things up and get kids out of their seats, I like to do a “tone hunt.” Too often I find myself reading their essays and seeing the same generic five words to describe tone and none of them really captures the nuance intended. Though they have lists and I push them to use them in class discussion, their lack of familiarity with the context of the word prevents them from using it in their writing. … KEEP READING

Writing the Group Essay

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About three years ago, we were coming up on the end of the semester. There was so much to do between finishing up Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders and grading. I wanted to finish the unit with something meaningful, but I also needed to be practical in terms of evaluating and inputting grades and closing out the semester. On my drive home, it occurred to me that I could have the students work in groups to write an essay in response to Shakespeare’s play. I went home and thought very carefully about how to structure the assignment so the students would be successful and so the essays would hang together and make some kind of sense.

As I walked around the next day listening to the student conversation around the play, themes, characters, and how to put their ideas all together, I realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon something very powerful. … KEEP READING

Why Impromptu Speeches Work

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I have a confession to make.

Up until this year, I’ve avoided public speaking activities in my classroom like the plague. It’s not that I don’t think students need it – apart from playing a pivotal role in the Common Core Speaking and Listening strand — being able to express ideas in a clear and concise way is a crucial skill for success in the adult world. It’s not that I never have students speak in front of the class. We have a few projects throughout the year in which groups get up and present a PowerPoint and discussion plays an essential part of instruction in my daily lessons.

But it is a very rare occasion that I have students stand up and autonomously give a speech to the class and that is for one reason and one reason only: they fight it tooth and nail. Sure, there are one or two hams that love to get up and bask in the spotlight, but they are few and far between, and until now, this wasn’t a hill I was willing to die on.  … KEEP READING

Engaging Students with Editorials

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Relevancy. Rigor. Authenticity.  These are buzzwords in education.  Pundits overuse these terms, which makes teachers ignore their meanings.  We may avoid confronting these terms because we know, deep down, that these concepts are difficult to achieve in the classroom.

It’s difficult to make a curriculum relevant to the lives of 25 teenagers,  meeting all of their needs and wants.

It’s difficult to scaffold lessons, pushing students to the edge of their zones of proximal development.

It’s difficult to create a classroom  where students read and write authentically, not just “playing school” for extrinsic rewards. … KEEP READING

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