To stack the cards in favor of students leading small group discussions, stay with me as I recount a recent visit to an eighth grade class: Students sat in rows. They had just finished reading “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury. At first, students appeared excited about Bradbury’s story. Sitting in the middle of a row, I heard these whispered comments before the questions began:
“Scary. Such isolation.”
“Weird that he whispers to houses.”
“He’s treated like he’s not important. Yeah. He’s a writer.”
The teacher quieted the class and began her questions:
- When does the story take place?
- What is the name of the protagonist?
- How long were his walks?
The mood abruptly changed. Students slumped. Some made eye contact and mouthed BORING!
They dutifully answered the questions and went on to complete a set of worksheets on one of three novels. No dialogue, no interpretation, no joy.
This picture brought me back to some of my own English classes in middle and high school. Similar to some of my experiences, the teacher wasn’t leading a discussion where students interpreted a story, formed opinions, and backed them up with text evidence. No critical thinking here! And the students were bored with a factual check-up. They burned to get into the issues and warnings in Bradbury’s story and discuss what was important and relevant to their lives.
The Benefits of Student-Led Discussions
First, students love to talk. And they come to school with talking experience and expertise. A powerful form of communicating ideas, group discussions foster the social interactions students enjoy. Our students can engage in literary conversations; when students’ talk is about high-quality literature or even a powerful movie, their conversations become literary as they explore multiple interpretations by bringing their personal and literary experiences to the text.
Teach students how to ask their own essential questions for studying big ideas and themes, such as: What factors shape our values and beliefs? Essential questions are broad and big and invite students to use inquiry to raise more questions. Here are a few questions fifth-grade students generated:
- How do you define values and beliefs?
- Who shapes our values?
- How can personal experiences develop or change values?
- How do values and beliefs affect decisions?
- How do values and beliefs affect hopes and dreams and goals?
- Why might a disaster or tragedy change our values and beliefs?
In addition, invite students to create open-ended discussions questions centered around specific books. For students to create discussion questions, they need to know text details as well as test each question to see if there’s evidence for at least two different answers. For example, third graders created this open-ended question for the folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk: Why did Jack climb the beanstalk? Conversations starting with open-ended or essential questions can lead students into analytical and critical analysis about characters, plot, themes, conflicts, and information. These are the types of conversations that motivate and engage students in reading, writing, thinking, and talking.
I’ve identified five benefits for integrating meaningful discussions using this student-centered approach into lessons:
Benefit 1: Improves Recall and Comprehension as students realize they require a strong knowledge of the text to cite evidence to prove a point as well as to politely disagree with a peer’s interpretation.
Benefit 2: Motivates and Engages students who can compose their own essential question as well as open-ended questions. By discussing what’s meaningful to them, students become invested and engaged.
Benefit 3: Fosters Analytical and Critical Thinking as students probe a text by analyzing characters’ decisions, emotional state, the affects of settings and interactions in fiction. Using informational texts they can evaluate data, decisions, the science behind information, etc.
Benefit 4: Communicates Ideas Effectively as students ask clarifying questions and challenge peers’ ideas, then find the words to clearly express their thinking to others.
Benefit 5: Develops Powerful Oral Texts that move beyond the facts to using the facts to analyze and make connections.
Asking Students to Discuss Their Questions Invites Them to Analyze and Think
The depth of thinking and listening to learn teaches students to value diverse interpretations. In addition, participating in literary conversations can support the development of in-the-head conversations when reading independently. To help you take the plunge and organize student-led conversations, I’ve developed an easy-to-implement teaching guide for Corwin Literacy: “The-On-Your-Feet Guide to Student–Led Discussions.” Try it. And know that your students are practicing collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—three skills that will prepare them for their future.