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April 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 7
Tell Us About

Tell Us About

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Readers share a change they made that improved their class discussions.

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Instructional Strategies
Illustration of people in conversation, with empty text bubbles
Credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock

Get Them Talking at the Start

In keeping with the research that affirms that if you can get everyone to speak, even briefly, at the beginning of a class (or segment of a class), then the quieter members are more likely to speak up later, I start discussions with unexpected questions that invite a short answer from everyone. For example: "In that video we watched, what is one thing you noticed that you think maybe nobody else may have noticed?" Or, when launching a discussion on a short piece of music: "How many ‘parts' would you say that piece of music had?" And indeed, the quieter members do speak up more in the subsequent group discussion.
Eric Booth, teaching artist, freelance, High Falls, New York

A Game-Changing Discussion Tool

I use a tool called Pear Deck, an add-on to Google Slides that allows students to respond to prompts. There's a variety of formats including multiple choice, short answer, drawing, drag and drop, etc. The teacher can see the students' responses and choose which ones to share anonymously. I had a student with autism who did not like to speak in class but had amazing ideas. He would share his ideas through Pear Deck, and I would feature his answer on the board anonymously and praise it. Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to voice his answer during our class discussions. Pear Deck is such a wonderful tool, and the feedback I have received from my students when we use it is amazing. Many of my shy students comment that it is a way for them to be involved in class discussions without having to speak in front of their peers. It's been the biggest game-changer for my classroom.
Shyloh-Dawn Bonogofski, psychology and inclusion learning teacher, Eagle Butte High School, Dunmore, Alberta, Canada

One Rich Conversation

As a special educator, I get to have many one-on-one conversations with students to develop their ability to engage in meaningful dialogue. Instead of choosing a different topic each day or week, I have found that building upon one rich conversation is more valuable. This approach increases the students' comfort level and allows them an easy entry point into the conversation instead of starting over each day. Awkward silence disappears, and wait time decreases because the student builds upon the previous day's discussion. In addition, these same students now initiate conversations with me instead of waiting to respond to my questions. This minor adjustment has proven valuable in building conversational skills and, most important, student confidence. I look forward to these short but rich conversations each day.
Jon Harper, special education teacher,  Maple Elementary School, Cambridge, Maryland

Disagreeing to Agree

I was having trouble getting my high school U.S. history students to interact in class discussions. One of my recent lessons used the structured academic controversy model from Stanford's Reading Like a Historian materials. The process uses documents and a debatable prompt. It works like an informal debate, but the emphasis is on reaching consensus rather than winning an argument. This strategy really resonated with my students, and they were still discussing the topic as they walked out of class.
Brian Foutz, high school teacher, Faith Academy, Manila, Philippines

Stand and Command

I am an ELA teacher for grades 5 and 6. I've improved class discussions by instituting a couple of new strategies. First, my students stand when they speak. This calls attention, in a visual way, to the fact that they have the floor. I have taught my students to command their audience. This means that they survey the room using only their eyes and only speak when their classmates and I are quiet and looking at them. Finally, students raise their hands if they wish to add to the discussion, and the standing speaker calls on the next speaker to contribute by following the strategy above. My students know that everyone who wants to contribute should be called on before people who have already spoken are called on again. They do these steps automatically now and have increased their level of respect for themselves as the speaker and for the one they are listening to.
Jane Wingle, ELA teacher, St. Thomas the Apostle, Delmar, New York

Pausing to Gain Self-Control

One change I have made is pausing for peace, which I learned from the P.A.U.S.E. model. As an elementary school music teacher, I wondered how I could help students become aware of their feelings by focusing on their bodies. Sometimes when excited, or during a transition, students need time to check in and reset. I give the "time out" gesture with my hands and ask the kids to stop for a moment. I explain that sometimes we stop listening to our bodies and our brains get a little lost. "If we Pause for Peace we can stop and listen to what our bodies are saying. Let's try it: Pause, close your eyes, take a deep breath through your nose and out your nose. That felt so good, let's take another." The shift in energy is palpable. Students now suggest that we pause for peace when they feel their bodies getting out of control, or if we are too loud. It gives them agency and a way to regain control without my help. This one simple change allows students to feel more empowered and confident when they are in my class. They are more willing to share ideas and listen to others.
Melissa Zych, elementary vocal music teacher,  West Hartford Public Schools, West Hartford, Connecticut

Pause and Connect

It sounds so small but the most profound change I've made in my classroom discussions is making space to pause, listen, and connect with my students. I always thought my voice had to be mean to maintain control. I was taught that kids are going to try to distract you. And since time is limited, we need to stay on task and focus on key skills. I never had truly rich discussions until I brought Internal Family Systems (IFS) and the P.A.U.S.E. model into my classroom. At the heart of the P.A.U.S.E. model is an emphasis on building a connection with yourself and then your students. First, I learned to listen inside and become aware of what I was experiencing so I could settle. Grounded in myself, I was then able to listen more fully, not just to my students' words, but to their body language and underlying need. I got to know my students so much better. I learned what they could handle and where they were stuck. By offering my open-hearted presence, I built trust and a safer learning environment. If I want to have a classroom full of rich discussion, I make space to nurture connection.
Amy Schaefer, art teacher, Strong Middle School, Durham, Connecticut

Making a Point, Not Earning One

Students often come into discussions focusing on how many points they'll get if they say something. In my language arts class, I changed the emphasis on speaking for points to the importance of learning from each other and accessing deeper thinking. I combined strategies from Socratic Seminar and Accountable Talk and remind students that we are accountable (a) to each other/ the learning community and (b) to accurate knowledge by referring to the text and getting our facts straight. That way, students get to the third aspect of Accountable Talk: rigorous thinking, rather than just trying to get a word in. The focus is on listening and learning, and I provide proficient and more advanced transition sentence stems to help students synthesize what others have said and add to the conversation. The exit slip at the end allows them to reflect on what was said and how they contributed, or what else they might add.
Kira Hopkins, teacher, English Language Arts, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, Washington

Create Visual Thinking Routines

At Laurel Mountain Elementary in Texas, we are using Harvard's Project Zero Visible Thinking Routines to frame and enhance classroom discussions. Creating and exhibiting visual thinking routines in the classroom documents students' thinking and serves a stimulus to more classroom discussions. Both the process and the structure provide teachers and students scaffolding and metacognition opportunities. As a result, the classroom walls act as an instructional component, creating a learning environment that engages all learners in the process of sharing their thinking and building off the curiosity and learning of others.
Doriane Marvel, principal, Laurel Mountain Elementary, Austin, Texas

Responding with Respect

When students "act out" in some way during group discussions, it could be for attention or to mask some other unmet need. There is some part of the student that is compelled to disrupt the moment. Recently, I have been using a new approach to help call out these moments with respect and compassion.
I say, "I notice that a part of you is focusing your attention on things not related to this conversation. It is important to me that all students feel connected and focused on this discussion. Could you ask the part of you that is getting distracted to see if it would be willing to take a little bit of a break? Later on, we can have a chat about what that part might be needing. Thank you."
By distinguishing the different parts of us in a respectful way, especially the ones that appear on the surface to be "bad," it preserves the integrity of the innate worth of a child. The result is extraordinary. Students feel seen and valued, and respectful and compassionate boundaries are established. This approach comes from the Self-Leadership Collaborative, which is bringing a groundbreaking approach to inter- and intrapersonal relationships in schools.
Joel Michor, unit field trip teacher, The Logan School for Creative Learning, Denver, Colorado

Be Prepared

One change that I have made to improve class discussions is preparation. I want students to be fully prepared to engage in a discussion, so I provide time for students to unpack the discussion prompt. I encourage them to jot down some ideas, and their ideas spark discussions in an organic way. Students are also reminded to use their notes during discussions. This preparation has helped students have richer discussions.
Todd Feltman, middle school literacy coach, New York City Department of Education, New York

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