Conducting Student-Centered Discussion in the Classroom
By Samantha Cleaver
Every time her students get ready to talk about a piece of reading, Amber Damm, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Clara Barton Open School of South Minneapolis, MN, arranges her classroom desks in a circle and assigns seats. As the students get settled, Damm reminds them of the expectations. “You become smarter because of the people next to you,” she says, “because of how they think and their values and because of how they saw the text.” Once the first question is asked, a hush falls over the classroom, interrupted only by the flipping of pages as kids reference their books and refer to their notes.
For the last five years, Damm’s students have used the Shared Inquiry method of learning, developed by the Great Books Foundation. This method prompts students to uncover their own meaning from challenging texts through deep discussion and questioning. In the course of her experiences using Shared Inquiry, Damm has come to value the way that this method encourages her students to grapple with ideas. “Dealing with paradoxes and holding opposing ideas in their brains,” says Damm, “prepares students for life.”
As an added bonus, the Shared Inquiry method is also preparing Damm’s students to meet the benchmarks under the Common Core State Standards. The new standards very much emphasize the student-centered discussions that take place in Damm’s classroom on a daily basis. Indeed, as more schools adopt the CCSS, teachers will need to follow Damm’s lead in letting students take the floor.
Getting Started With Student-Centered Discussion
It can be scary to hand control over to students, but the rewards are worth it, says Sarah Benefiel, a sixth-grade English teacher at Carlos Fuentes UNO Charter School in Chicago, IL. When Benefiel started hosting student-led Socratic seminars in her classroom, she chose two poems, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Throughout the week, students read and re-read the poems, wrote and revised discussion questions, and planned their discussion contributions. During their final 25-minute student discussion, the conversation about symbolism and author’s perspective was so productive that Benefiel was hesitant to end the conversation, even when class was over.
For Benefiel, student-led Socratic seminars were a way to challenge students to go beyond an initial reading of the text. On one hand, explains Benefiel, the Socratic seminars were hard for students. On the other hand, students were more engaged because they knew this was a rigorous discussion. “The text was challenging and the way in which they were being asked to speak was challenging,” says Benefiel, but “it was fun for them because they were being asked to talk like adults.”
If you are new to student-centered discussions, how do you go from being the one who asks all the questions to the relatively silent facilitator? We asked our team of teachers and experts to share their best advice:
- Start With a Challenging Text
In the Shared Inquiry method of discussion, the text provides the foundation for student understanding, multiple meanings, and debate. Both Damm and Benefiel found that when preparing for discussion, students were able to grapple with a text much more difficult than that they may have read on their own. “Sometimes I think a text is too hard,” says Damm, “and it has been proven to me over and over that it is not.”
Take Away: Even if you think a text is above your students’ reading level, bring it in and plan opportunities for students to engage and grapple with it.
- Set the Stage
Before any discussion, Damm’s students spend five to ten minutes writing their response to the first question. This allows less outgoing students to share their carefully considered answers, and ensures that everyone has an opportunity to participate. After the discussion, students reconsider their answers based on what they’ve heard from other students, and are given a chance to change their initial responses. Damm reads the final responses to assess how students changed their minds during the discussion, and why.
Take Away: Create and reinforce a structure for preparation, discussion, and reflection. During discussion, set a procedure to help you facilitate and monitor. Damm and Benefiel both recommend keeping a record of who has contributed to the conversation so you can ensure 100% participation.
- Seize Questions As Opportunities
Students at Sarah Smith Elementary School in Atlanta, GA, start learning Shared Inquiry discussion practices in kindergarten. By first grade, they’re starting to drive the conversation. “Once the students understand how to question, [the rest] comes naturally to them,” says principal Sidney Baker.
When teachers seize on student questions and use them to drive discussion, it empowers students, agrees Denise Ahlquist, the vice president for training at Great Books. Underscoring the value of questions also helps open the floor to students who may struggle with reading in general.
Take Away: Set the expectation that questions are valuable and take time to answer every question that you can during student discussion.
- Encourage Interaction
Damm and Benefiel sit outside of the discussion circle and interject only to facilitate or to invite students to participate. During discussion, asking students “why?” and “what do you think?” is enough to encourage students to deepen their understanding of the text without losing student ownership.
Take Away: During discussion, give students simple directions to encourage them to interact with one another. If one student disagrees with another, for example, prompt her to turn to the other student and try to convince him of her point of view.
- Seek Support From Colleagues
At Sarah Smith Elementary, a week before student discussions teachers have their own Shared Inquiry discussions about the stories they are reading in class. This helps teachers go through the process and become deeply familiar with the texts before they facilitate student discussions. It also provides a foundation for later reflection on classroom discussions.
Take Away: You will find more success with student-centered discussions if you are able to prepare for them in collaboration with other teachers.
- 6. Be Patient
How quickly or how effectively you will transition to student-centered discussions depends on your own experience as a learner and teacher, so be patient and plan to spend a few weeks teaching students how they work. “It really takes practice to support ideas with evidence and look for deeper meaning,” says Rachel Claff, editorial director of K-12 programs at the Great Books Foundation, but “it yields rich results.”