Alternative Classroom Discussion Formats

25 May

I’m closing in on my sixteenth year in an English classroom, and as any veteran teacher will admit, falling into ruts can be fairly easy. I will freely acknowledge that I can sometimes slip into default mode, especially when it comes to class discussions. I know how to foster a well-paced, inclusive discussion that avoids the Select Few dominating the discourse. I don’t, then, feel particularly impelled to change the format. But, boy, I’m glad that I still do.

My colleague in sophomore English is a gregarious, inventive, and reflective teacher just finishing his second year. He has some really good ideas on how to flip modes of discussion to play to various students’ strengths. In this post, I’m just going to rip off his ideas (and some ideas from others), giving full credit, of course.

The Experts Panel:

My colleague came up with this idea. At my school, students taking English for honors credit and those receiving standard credit are in the same section. We have to differentiate in some creative ways. One thing honors students must do is read an extra book and participate in extra discussions outside of class. This term students read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

As the students read the book, we constructed a series of Fishbowl Discussions to monitor their understanding of the text. (More on the Fishbowl technique below.) For the final discussion, however, we devised an alternative format using Google Hangouts. Unfortunately, we hit a snag. Users under 18 years of age cannot record Google Hangouts. Scrambling for an alternative, my colleague came up with the Experts Panel format.

We determined general categories of discussion topics beforehand and asked each student to prepare a few discussion questions from each category, emphasizing that the quality of their questions would help us gauge their understanding of the novel.

On the day of the discussion, we randomly chose three to four students to sit at the front as our expert panel. Then, using to make a spinner, we randomly chose the topic. In addition to the categories listed in the assignment description, we added Teacher’s Choice and random prizes.

Once the category was chosen, the audience asked questions and the panelists provided answers. When a topic was exhausted, we rotated panelists, with every student getting a chance to be an expert. Of course, the teachers asked questions and sat on a panel, but we were largely observers.

The rapid fire Q&A format led to one of the best literary discussions of my teaching career. Students on the experts panel really worked to provide erudite and original answers, while a healthy competition arose in the audience to ask the most intelligent question.

This Experts Panel format would work for any subject area. Of course, if used too often any format becomes tedious, but the students truly responded to this approach.

Fishbowl Discussion:

This video at Edutopia does a better job than I could explaining the format. As my honors students read Swamplandia! we scheduled a few fishbowl discussions so I could monitor their understanding and guide their analysis. Students also took notes on a shared Google Doc as they discussed so they could reference these notes later on. Due to numbers, I was the only one on the outside of the fishbowl, but I’ve used this format often. Giving students the chance to observe discussion can greatly improve their contributions when they are active participants.

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