Education Week: ‘Trust, Challenge & Wonder’ Are Needed for Classroom Discussions

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The new question of the week is: 

What are the best ways to organize and lead classroom discussions? 

Part One featured responses from Rita Platt, Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, Jackie Walsh, Doug Lemov, and Valentina Gonzalez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Adeyemi, and Jackie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here

Today, Kara Pranikoff, Laura Robb, Sky Sweet, Tricia Ebarvia, and Patty O’Grady contribute their commentaries about facilitating classroom discussions. 

Response From Kara Pranikoff 

Kara Pranikoff is a literacy coach at a public school in New York City. She has recently published a book, Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017) that shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students: 

As a community of learners, we need to develop structures to share ideas and learn from each other. Often it is easier to turn over our small group or partner talk times to student discretion. We know we can’t be present in all these smaller arenas so we feel confident stepping back and letting students talk and respond to each other. However, if we believe in the importance of student independence and the priority of student thinking, we have to ground our classroom discussions in the ideas of our students. Let’s support each other in learning how to turn over the organization and lead of classroom talk to our students, the learners in the classroom. 

I’m a big believer in jumping in. We improve in our practice when we try new things. My best advice is to find a shared text or image and turn a whole class discussion over to the students. Simply tell them that you are going to remain quiet. (It’s harder than it appears.) Open the discussion by asking What are you thinking? and see what happens next. 

This work takes bravery (you can’t control what students will say, but it will be organic and honest) and commitment (all good skills require good doses of practice). But there is no doubt about the importance of this instruction. Discussion that deepens the thinking of all participants is an imperative life skill, so let’s start early in letting kids drive the talk. 

It helps to videotape the discussion and take a transcript (this will keep you busy and not talking) and use these artifacts to analyze later on your own and with your class. Notice who talks, with what frequency and how the discussion shift the thinking of the group. Consider the role of your voice (or lack of voice). Reflect, set some goals, and try again. If you don’t step back, you don’t know what your students are capable of. 

Here are some common bumps that occur when shifting to student-led classroom discussions and some possible next steps that keep the discussion anchored by the thoughts and words of the students. Good luck!