Sunday, January 31, 2010

Class Discussions

Before I begin, I just wanted to introduce myself to those of you who don’t know me: my name is Cara Saraco, I’m a senior English major (advisee of Dr. Goldsmith’s), and I’m also getting certified in secondary education. Last semester, I student taught 8th, 9th, and 12th graders.

While I was student teaching, one of the things I was most nervous about was developing good class discussions. Though a discussion is typically regarded as a highly successful pedagogical tool, it’s also (in my opinion) one of the most difficult things for a teacher to pull off. I wanted to be the teacher who facilitated the kinds of illuminating dialogues in her class that I’ve experienced as a student, but I also remembered all too well the many attempts of my former teachers to spark a discussion that completely failed. Over those three months of student teaching, where everything I did was pretty much an experiment, I learned some things that can help to create an active and meaningful class discussion; these techniques are also practiced by the best professors I've had at Ursinus:

1.Scaffolding. It’s hard to get a discussion going if students aren’t already prepared with some thoughts. If you are going to be discussing texts, it’s helpful to set a purpose for reading so that they come into class having already considered the text. While the 8th graders I taught read Steinbeck’s The Pearl, I had them note quotations that responded to three “essential questions” for the unit. When we finally had our discussion of the novel as a whole, they had plenty of textual support to refer to and had been considering these questions throughout the reading.
2.Good questions. Questions should be intriguing and debatable. Though there’s likely an understanding you want your students to arrive at, questions should also reveal misconceptions.
3.Don’t ask a question that you don’t really want an answer to. Students can tell when a question isn’t really important, and will not feel like responding.
4.Wait Time. Studies have shown that teachers typically wait only for about 1 second before calling on a student, which is understandable: the silence is terrifying. However, it’s important to keep in mind that students need time to think, especially when you’re hitting them with some pretty heavy stuff, and if you wait just 3 to 5 seconds before calling on someone, more hands will go up and answers will be more substantial. I no one is raising their hand, don’t give in to the silence immediately. It might feel horribly awkward to stand there in silence, but it feels awkward for the students too, and sooner or later someone will feel obligated to break the silence.
5.If a student asks a question, resist the temptation to answer it yourself. Put it back out to the class to see if another student can answer it before you do.
6.Don’t be afraid to break away from your agenda. If a discussion is thriving and it’s intellectual, it’s good to hold off from predetermined questions and not worry too much about getting back to your plans.
7.Classroom arrangement. It may seem silly to force students to make their desks into a true circle, but it really does help. My most successful discussion with the seniors I taught occurred when we pushed all the desks to the sides of the room and sat in a circle on the floor.
8.Knowing and using students’ names. Making the effort really does pay off.

Dr. Goldsmith and I would like to hear your thoughts and experiences as well about this tricky topic.
• In your opinion, what constitutes a good discussion? What are some ways you’ve facilitated good discussions?
• What to you constitutes good questions? How do you develop them?
• What do you do if a discussion fails?
• Why is discussing good? When is it not good?
• For those of you who have students use discussion forums online, how do you get students to respond to each other rather than just posting their individual thoughts? (I tried doing a blog with the seniors, and the most common problem I found was that students didn’t read and respond to their peers’ comments).

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