That's a great question, and one that I'm commonly asked.
I'm still trying to figure it out for myself, but I've got a few thoughts.
The Recipe Calls for Stone Soup
Most of us recall the classic book Stone Soup. Three hungry travelers, turned away at every door in a small village, devise a plan to trick the unsuspecting townspeople. Speaking fondly of delicious stone soup, the travelers sigh in dismay at their inability to create it; after all, they're missing a few key ingredients. In their desire to sample this delicious soup, the villagers enthusiastically agree to contribute the needed ingredients, and in the end all enjoy a stew created through both collaboration and cunning.
A good classroom discussion consists of similar elements: a plan to make it happen, and students eager to bring something to the table.
Don't Come Empty Handed
Translation: Every student must read beforehand, and come prepared to share.
After all, it's key that students have a common background from which to draw during a classroom discussion. Keep in mind, however, that what they read at home the night before need not be the novel itself, but instead a nonfiction piece, poem, or other literary artifact that in some way relates to the novel.
When reading Island of the Blue Dolphins or Call of the Wild, for example, it's critical that students understand pack behavior, especially the role of the alpha. With that in mind, I would have students read a nonfiction article on that topic, and prepare to discuss the key points the next day.
(By the way, I'll talk more getting students to read beforehand in the next post and describe how I make it happen).
Drop a Pebble in the Pot
Translation: Get the thinking started.
When students turn up the next day, they'll expect to discuss what they've read. Don't disappoint them. From the second they walk in, present students with a question or task that puts the knowledge into action.
In response to the wolf selection, for example, students might find these questions awaiting them the next day:
- Does every pack need an alpha? Why or why not?
- Is a pack only as strong as its leader?
- Think of a book or movie you know well in which you can identify pack behavior.
By Drop a Pebble in the Pot, then, I mean to get the thinking started. As time goes on, students will become accustomed to this practice of jotting quick reflections into a notebook in preparation for the coming discussion; older students will, in fact, even provide their own ideas for questions to get everyone talking.
Soup of the Day
Translation: Know what you're serving up.
In every case, have an objective in mind before the discussion begins. What's to be taken away from from the dialogue? Theme, character development, literary motif, motive, metaphor? In many cases, it's a discussion of what do the individual words on the page say when they're put together in this way? In other cases, it's a matter of how did the author do that with words, and what can we as writers learn from it?
Portion It Out
Translation: Ensure that everyone participates.
In my class, I have a deck of name cards color coded to each section I teach. When discussion is either too heated or too complacent, out come the cards. When everyone needs to throw in a quick share, out come the cards. When it's time to hear some jotted-down responses, but time won't allow hearing them all, out come the cards. It's simply too easy to unconsciously play favorites when you're pressed for time and the same hands are waving in the air.
Translation: Define and enforce rules for discussion.
The passion of a heated argument is no excuse for disrespecting others. Early on, implement a policy of acceptable behavior for classroom discussions (the Collaborize Classroom site, mentioned below, has an online student conduct code in its Teacher Resources section which can be tweaked to serve this purpose).
To Go Menu
Translation: Keep the conversation going.
Sometimes, there's a lot more to be said! And students want to continue the conversation beyond the confines of the class. In this case, a class wiki, blog, or social media environment would serve you well.
In the past I've written about Edmodo, which I described as "a ning for students." It serves as a secure social media site for upper elementary and middle school students, and I still dig it even now.
Recently, however, my students have been using a social media site called Collaborize Classroom. Like Edmodo, it's private and secure, yet the teacher can see all interactions. Unlike Edmodo, it allows more content creation possibilities for students, more sophisticated response modules, and an easier user interface.
You can get a pretty good idea of its form and function from this recent video (and check out their multimedia page if you want to see more).
What I love about Collaborize Classroom is that they provide a number of excellent pdfs for teachers to use the site productively, including Do's and Don'ts of Student Forums, The Art of Asking Questions, Creative Writing Prompts, Examples of Sentence Starters, and Icebreakers. If you've read this far, then one resource you need to check out right now is Eight Intriguing Strategies to Continue the Discussion. This is a document directed at the student, designed to teach ways to keep the conversation going. Definitely needed for some of our more morose teens!
And know this: the folks who designed Collaborize Classroom aren't done yet. They absolutely welcome any feedback which will help to make this tool an indispensable resource for the classroom.