When I see my old lesson plans and writeups here at Byrdseed, I see a common problem pop up.
In my plans, I would write “Have a discussion about
This is a huge problem because, even as a grey-bearded middle-aged educator, I have no idea what I meant by “have a discussion”! Are kids just talking to each other at will? Is everyone talking to me? Through me? Am I asking questions? Are they asking questions? Who are they asking? Are we raising hands? Am I calling random kids? How do I even know what I’m asking them!? How do I know when to stop?
“Discuss” Was An Easy Way Out
I would encourage you to slash the words “have a discussion” from any lesson plans you see.
I know that, for me, the word “discuss” was an easy way out. I didn’t want to actually plan something, so I just waved my hands around.
👋 We’ll “have a discussion”.👋
And it sounds good, right? My class “discussed” the topic. It sounds very engaging and student-centered!
But it rarely looked that way in reality, because I had not done the appropriate planning to lead an engaging discussion.
A “Discussion” Requires Planning
An unstructured discussion with, in my case, thirty-six 12-year-olds is going to be an absolute mess unless I plan it out! Of course, the discussion is going to evolve, take odd turns, and go to unexpected places. So the plan needs to have options. It needs to be flexible.
It’s like being a great host at a cocktail party (but without the liquor, of course). A host is prepared with interesting (but not too controversial) topics. Those topics are appropriate to the guests. The host has amusing anecdotes to share about each guest (“Oh, Jane, you must meet Takai. You’ve both climbed Mt. Fuji!”). A great host pops into groups that some help. They resolve awkward moments. They leave groups that are getting along well. The host is highly active. And the host is well prepared.
Any kind of class discussion needs to be just as carefully planned.
The BEST Class Discussions I Ever Had
By far, the best discussions I had in my classes were built around the Junior Great Books program. These sessions, known as “shared inquiry”, were a sight to see! New teachers would, in fact, gather in veteran teachers’ rooms to watch how they did it! I attended a two-day training to learn how to run discussions with students. The whole training was a simulation in which the participants did the readings and acted as students. It was maybe the best professional development I’ve attended.
Lay The Groundwork
The key to these discussions was, of course, planning! Here are some things you would want to think about in advance of a classroom discussion:
- What’s the objective? What do you want students to know/think/be able to do by the end of the discussion? What comes next? Jr. Great Books discussions always led to a writing prompt about how kids had changed their thinking.
- What is the sequence of questions you’re going to ask? I’d have a dozen questions written out and ready to draw from. Yes, it was a “discussion”, but I also knew in advance where I was going. I never got to every question, but I had them ready to go. I wasn’t winging it!
- Establish the norms. With Jr. Great Books, the class always sat in a circle. We had a handful of sentence starters or ways they could get involved in the discussion. “I agree with Timmy because…” or “I have changed my mind because…” No one interrupted. Disagreements were civil. Kids were encouraged to engage directly with each other, not the teacher.
- I kept a tally of who had spoken. This allowed me to draw out quieter students and settle down overly-active kids. When a student spoke, I just added a tally by their name. If Johnny hasn’t had a chance to participate, I can ask, “Johnny, what do you think about what Esmerelda said?” It’s amazing how often this student would have something amazing to say, but were intimidated to bust into the conversation.
- Kids were allowed to pass if they had nothing to say. No pressure to speak. I’d come back to them later. Students also knew that they were expected to take risks and be involved.
- We’d often take breaks to look things up in the book. “What page was that on, Kim? Oh ok, everyone let’s look at page 47. Can you read it out loud Kim?” This way we’re engaging with the text, not just going off of memory.
I could probably go on and on. But, as is the case in many situations, it takes a lot of work to make things look effortless. Even though I said very little during these discussions, they required far more preparation and training than a typical direction instruction lesson.
Build Out The Infrastructure
I now know that, if I’m going to plan a discussion into my lesson, that discussion needs a lot of infrastructure in order to work well. But, if you do lay that groundwork, you can have a pretty amazing discussion with even the youngest of students. Yes, Jr. Great Books offers Kindergarten and 1st-grade programs!
Funny Anecdote Time!
My favorite story in the 6th grade Jr. Great Book collection was The Veldt, an absolutely amazing sci-fi tale from Ray Bradbury. It had a couple of light swear words and a bit of violence. In my first year, I nervously asked a 4th-grade teacher (Ms. R) how she had handled that content when she taught 6th grade.
“Oh, I just told them about it ahead of time and acted like it wasn’t a big deal.”
So, I did that and it was, indeed, not a big deal. But years later, one of Ms. R’s 4th graders told me at recess, “Our teacher said you swear a lot in class!”
And I was, like, “uh… ” 😬
So I asked Ms. R at lunch, “So… what are you telling your class about me?” I explained what had happened.
She laughed and said, “No no no! I was telling my kids how mature they needed to be in 6th grade because Mr. Byrd reads stories with swear words in them. I did not tell them you swear all of the time in class!”
I do miss being at a school sometimes!
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