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.
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.
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.
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.