Some of us have been there. You have a room full of 30+ students, and you wonder how it is possible that so many kids or teenagers could actually be that quiet. Many avert their eyes, thinking that if they don’t make eye contact, they can achieve the superpower of invisibility. Then, there are those five students who confidently and regularly raise their hands, waiting to be called on to answer the question that has been posed by the teacher. Regardless of the topic, regardless of the questions, it is usually the same five hands that sprout up each time.
How can we improve our practice so that more engagement occurs for all students and not just the confident few? A successful discussion is typically dependent on two factors: the topic and the level of participation. How can we choose subjects for discussion that interest and yet educate students? How can we run our discussions so that all students have a voice?
As an English Language Arts teacher, literacy is at the core of my curriculum. This is not new to our content area. For years, the traditional genres we teach include short stories, poetry, and novels. However, in this world where news can literally be transmitted the minute we click the share button, we need to expand the breadth of what our students are reading. Our world is increasingly digital, and it’s time we add that to our warehouse of genres. This is why I regularly supplement my students’ readings with online sources, like articles from KQED’s The Lowdown. The Lowdown provides current and educational topics that are fantastic for incorporating informational text into the classroom. What better way to meet this requirement in the Common Core State Standards than to introduce stories that also resonant with our students?
Whole class discussions come with limitations. This is why, over many years of teaching, I’ve tried different approaches to encourage meaningful dialogue among students. To me, a conversation isn’t meaningful if only 15 to 20% of the class is talking during the period. This is why I think the following strategies are great alternatives to the traditional approach of whole class discussions.