When I started the year, I had 56 students in one of my sections and 50-some in another. (Want to try your hand at trying to manage that classroom on the first week?) As the year goes on, my classes get smaller, due to our transient student body at my school — kids move, transfer or get in some disciplinary messes. Slowly, my classes have leveled off around 40 or so the last two years.
Given that class size, facilitating a classroom discussion in our co-taught classes (English and Current Events this semester) can be a challenge. Given the class size, students are probably intimidated, plus there is no way to keep things accountable. And given the class size, there are some days that I can barely get through an Agenda without an interruption or distraction. (The days that I can are the days I celebrate.)
I had thought about trying some Lit Circles this year (and there is still hope, given the flexibility of having a Current Events companion to my English curriculum), but I did not detect that we were there yet in our professionalism/collegiality… That is, until this week.
A week ago, I attended the University of Illinois Writing Project’s Spring Conference and presented, too. My biggest take-away came from the keynote address by a former UIWP fellow who presented on her collaborative efforts to build student talk. What impressed me most was the way that she worked discussion around novels into the weekly routine, had the means to keep kids accountable and also covered the Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening. She put together a number of things that I had already been doing in my classroom — text-marking while reading, setting roles for group members, taking notes while listening — and found a way to weave them into a great process for setting students up for having collegial discourse about novel excerpts. Her examination of the power dynamics of discussion in her highly diverse classroom were thought-provoking as well, particularly when we started examining video clips that showed the growth of her students discussion skills.
In her week, step one was to give students all a common excerpt, which they marked up. Students were to develop “seed” questions that could grow into a conversation about the text. Students had a day for this and then a day for discussion in groups of four. Their discussions notes then could turn into possible avenues for essays and other written responses that fulfilled other CCSS strands.
Silent reading time takes a lot of effort to achieve given the class size, but I did manage to get to it with smaller excerpts in 15-20 minute slots. I adapted this format and did a couple trial runs on Monday and Wednesday in quick, one-period runs. As an AVID teacher as well, one of my biggest foci in my PBL classrooms is inquiry. We have been really hitting Costa’s levels of questions. So, as a means for describing what a “seed” question was, I related it to level two and level three questions. The prep-work that my students did to get ready to talk about Fahrenheit 451 (see Text-Marking for disc – F451pt3 Burning for example) paid off, but I anticipated that the discourse would not necessarily be collegial right off the bat. Students work in groups regularly on projects, so my groups had already been established.
Technology played a part in helping to document this, so that we could have discussion in small-group workshops during our stations days. The power of video put kids on the spot to perform. As I moved around the room on the first two days, students would try to act more sophisticated when they saw me coming, but they still struggled. At our Promethean Board after the second attempt, students examined what the CCSS were and whether they were fulfilling them (see Discussion PS1213 Examples for our talking points ). We talked about steps to improve for Friday’s discussion. Many noted they wanted more time to discuss (wow!), because they were not getting to all of their questions, nor were they getting into enough depth. Some wanted to go back to their questions, because they were proud of them and wanted to know their partners’ opinions. (Secretly, I also celebrated the fact that they wanted to reflect on the alternate reality that Fahrenheit depicts.) They also picked out the best keywords of CCSS — prepared, diversity, perspective, evidence, thoughtfully — and were able to apply them to the good and not-so-good samples that they saw. They picked up on when students were going back to the text to back up a statement or contribution. We talked about the difference between “acting like listening” and “active listening”, which made many students tune in and participate further in the workshop. (This may have been the best workshop I have run on so-called “soft skills” in my career.)
I played up the growing process all week, and, sure enough, my students were proudly calling me over to show off their new discussion skills on Friday. Some students saved their “best” questions for when I was sneaking around, listening in and taking video samples for further examination next week. Now having some time to examine their discussion trackers (see F451 pt3 Disc Organizer exemplars 3-8), I can see their levels of questioning were very diverse and also thought-provoking. Themes that I did not even really bring up in other scaffolding activities came to the surface.
In reflecting back on this experience, the core of the problem, I realized, was that my perception of discussion called for me, the teacher, to start the discussion ball rolling. This is an idea that was probably prompted by another UIWP fellow’s blog post, but was proven by the discussion that I simply set students up for. Potential next steps would be adding some “How do you know?” sections to the organizers that I am proud of already. Finally, I can say discussion can be done, despite class size.