First discussion groups
I teach students how to talk to one another in small groups for 4 reasons: (1) I want them to envision what reading groups with me look like, (2) I want each reading groups to meet without me at least one time each week, (3) I eventually want all students to be able to participate in independent Book Clubs, and (4) this simple format is adaptable to the other structured talk formats I will expect students to use.
I introduce First Discussion Groups early in the year. To prepare for this day, I teach the lessons listed below to build a foundation on which all the discussion formats will be based. A more complete description of each format can be found on the Structured Talk page.
- Learn the argue-safely language.
- In class meetings, discuss possible problems from the Problem Jar and brainstorm solutions.
- Discuss the theory of disequilibrium with my students.
- Create my unit from my curriculum outlines and introduce specific learning targets.
There are just a couple more things to do before we’re ready to try First Discussions. We watch movies of students talking about books. We watch the videos several times, rating each participant on specific learning targets.
- I can lead off a discussion.
- I can sustain discussion by responding to someone.
- I can keep discussion going by listening to others and paying attention.
- I can figure out what classmates are asking and answer their questions.
- I can use argue-safely language.
- I can reference the text to provide evidence for my observations.
- I can compliment my classmates on their discussion skills.
- I can invite others into the discussion.
Watch effective discussion groups
I have collected videos of students discussing books in groups. We watch the movies to observe good discussion behaviors where students model effective discussion groups. There are free videos available online and commercial videos for sale if you don't have videos of your own. One DVD I can recommend you buy is Strategy Instruction in Action by Stenhouse. “Book Clubs” is one of the four videos in that collection. You can see a first-time book club, an average one, and an advanced book club of girls discussing Because of Winn Dixie. Even though the videos are designed for teachers, I show the advanced group to my students so they can critique the participation of the members against the learning targets.
Observe adults in action
I ask 3-4 staff members to come to my classroom to talk about an article that my students have read. The students really love watching adults talk – especially administrators they know. From watching the DVDs and the adults, the students observe how to talk without raising hands, read from the text to support their opinions, invite other people to share, and how to disagree respectfully.
Observe a first-time discussion group
Finally, I select 4-5 students who are willing to be observed discussing a short selection. The students follow The First Discussion Steps, which I post for all to see. I coach the small group through each step while the rest of the class observes them work through the steps. From watching the videos and the adult group, students have a pretty solid idea of what to do. However, there still are glitches. As I notice a problem occur, I throw the challenge out to the class and we brainstorm solutions. We start a problem-solution chart that stays up all year. On the left side, we record the problems we have. On the right side the students make suggestions for how to solve the problems.
For example, we see that a student has not participated. Someone might suggest something they saw an adult do or something from the video tape. For example, they might say, "I'd like to hear what you think." By modeling with a group in the middle and the others watching the group, everyone sees a solution work. I can also assure all students that reading clubs - even adult ones - experience the same difficulties. Every year the solutions are just a bit different because they come from the students. (To see more problems groups face, click here.) I may model this method of discussing for several days, calling on different students to be in the discussion group while others watch, critique, and and help me add to the problem-solution chart. .
The first day
Finally, everyone should be ready to start first-discussion groups. By now, students have (1) watched video of students talking in groups, (2) observed adults in action, and (3) watched a group of peers try. On this day, about 5 groups of 4-5 students each discuss a short selection they read and prepared. All groups discuss at the same time. Each group follows the same steps.
I move from group to group to keep the discussion flowing. I may even make a Star Chart to map the conversation for reflection later. I leave the last few minutes of our literacy block time to reflect on the process. The students assess the ability of their groups to discuss the reading, how well they worked together, and what they learned. That's when the Star Charts come in handy. We also continue to wrestle with challenges and figure out solutions and add to our chart.
In some classes, discussion groups continue to meet at the same time. I found that I teach more effectively when I meet with one group at a time. It doesn't bother me to have another group talking with one another independently of me on any given day. In fact, it's good practice to discuss without me. Looking at the overall picture though, I create a schedule so that one group meets with me, one group meets independently, and the other students prepare for the discussions by reading and sticky noting while working on other assignments. In addition, if readers are struggling, they meet with me as many days each week as possible - either to check in and then go off on their own or so that I can teach toward the gaps in their understanding of our state standards.