I’ve been experimenting this semester with different ways of encouraging meaningful academic talk between and among students. I think giving students opportunities to engage in meaning making for themselves is important at all levels, and after reading Cris Tovani’s wonderful No More Telling as Teaching, I have been more intentional about ways to help students have opportunities to talk and share that help their growth and support that of others. Some students relish these opportunities; others do not always embrace them as joyfully. There is also the challenge of helping students find the sweet spot of discussion and talk with others where the conversation stays on track and students don’t overtalk or undertalk with each other.
While my Honors students tend to be stronger with class discussions than my other sections, I try to give all my classes these learning experiences. However, even my upper level classes sometimes struggle or get in a rut. Last Friday, I decided to do a jigsaw discussion with one of my 11th Honors ELA classes in order to try to shake things up a little and incorporate more individual accountability for participation and contributions to a small group discussion. On Wednesday, students took a grade level performance final exam; after the exam, they had class time to read an excerpt of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were asked to complete summaries of each section and to answer seven short answer questions by the beginning of the next class on Friday.
When students arrived, they could choose a seat anywhere. I had desks arranged into four groups of seven and one seating cluster of four desks. Once students were seated, I passed out numbered task cards so that we formed “birds of feather” clusters. Students could move anywhere in the room to work with their fellow assigned task card group members and collaborate on answers to the questions on the task card for about 20 minutes. For example, if you received Task Card 2, you met up and worked with fellow Task Card 2 recipients.
Students then broke for lunch; when they returned, we organized ourselves at the seating areas so that someone from each group–Task Cards 1-7–was represented. They took about 5 minutes to follow these organizational instructions:
We then reviewed the procedures for the jigsaw discussion:
Students then had about 20 or so minutes to participate in the discussions and take notes on what each other had to say. In spite of growing excitement about a possible early release due to snow, most students stayed on task and made a good faith effort to participate and contribute.
When students finished, they were asked to create a poster based on their discussions and collaborative thinking:
Students then were asked to turn in their task card work plus their jigsaw discussion notes. Their individual assignment for homework was to compose a paragraph and choose the transcendentalist theme they felt the selection best represented and why; they were asked to provide at least two examples of textual evidence and accompanying commentary to support their response.
What are your favorite small and large group discussion strategies? How do you scaffold student talk? How do you nudge those who are reluctant or less than enthusiastic about participating?