The great thing about when a light bulb isn’t working, there’s just about only one possible thing that could have gone wrong: The light has burned out. Barring an unusual wiring problem, power outage, or blown breaker, you always know how to fix it right away.
Classroom discussions are…not at all like a light bulb. There may be 20 to 30 people in the room, all at various reading levels, all with different interests and motivation, and each of them brings into the classroom their emotions from home or the previous class, the complexities of adolescent relationships, and whatever positive or negative associations they have with scholastic work. All of that to say that when the “discussion light bulb” doesn’t click on, it is not always clear where the problem lies – or even if there is a problem to begin with.
Because our work at Inquiry By Design involves so much interaction and discussion, we thought it might be helpful to lay out a few quick diagnostic questions – things you might ask yourself if discussions aren’t going quite as expected or if you’re worried about upcoming sessions.
1. Is this a new kind of work for your students?
Students know how to “do” school, as long as school keeps running the same way it always has. If your students have not had many opportunities to generate, share, and respond to ideas in unstructured, open-ended discussions before, they will not start as experts, and may even initially resent the change in routine. First, lighten up on yourself and remember that it’s okay for things to start out rocky. Students may surprise you by stepping up to the challenge and figuring out how to fill the awkward silences with questions and ideas. If they don’t, keep in mind that students need to be taught to discuss things successfully, so take a moment before discussions to clarify expectations, set the tone, and remind them of the tools available (readings, collected notes, highlighted passages, annotations, quick writes, ideas from earlier discussions, giant post-its on the wall, etc.). If things go poorly, consider wrapping up with a quick reflection – problems and solutions for discussion – collected where they remain visible for review the next round. You may feel the need, after an initial crash and burn, to add a dozen new scaffolds for the next discussion (sentence stems are a popular example), but we would caution you to take it easy. Add only an essential piece or two, and consider how to remove the scaffolds once students are more accustomed to the work. Above all, students just need practice.
2. Are students sufficiently prepared for the discussion?
As English teachers, many of us like to go straight for the guts in literature – enough of this comprehension work, on to the theme! But comprehension errors can completely torpedo a conversation. We often tell teachers to move briskly with comprehension work, but never, ever skip it. Even if you think the reading is perfectly simple, and that you can save a whole class period by skipping over the quick write, the small-group work, and the whole-group charting, remember that you will always have that cohort of students who somehow missed the fact that Gatsby died at the end of the chapter.
When students don’t feel like they grasp the basic facts of a story, they certainly aren’t going to feel comfortable offering interpretations of it. Giving students a few minutes in small groups to lay out a quick retelling often uncovers the gaps and allows students a low-pressure opportunity to repair understanding before digging deeper.
There’s more of this to come, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These two issues alone cover some of the most common trouble spots!
Stay tuned for Part 2!