To begin, divide your class into groups of about 8 to 10. For most of us, that would be 3 or maybe 4 discussion groups. Eventually, I do make the groups random, but I find that stacking them a little at the beginning can head off those awkward silences. To keep the conversation flowing, I make sure to put at least 2 Chatty Cathys in each group. I also split up the students that I know will be really reluctant to join in so that each group has an equal amount.
The discussion will take place in a circle. I now have the luxury of having a round table in my room, but prior to last year, I had to have students move desks before the discussion, so that we could form a circle in the room.
When one group is discussing, the other groups are working on an assignment. This time I have students working on a worksheet from Jr. Great Books that dives into the meaning of the word respect and how it is used in the story. After they are finished with that, they will choose between two different writing assignments to complete.
The discussions usually run for 10 minutes, so a student would then have 20 or 30 minutes to work on the other assignments.
It does take some practice for both groups to feel comfortable. The students who aren't discussing will want to listen to the discussion at first, and the people discussing might feel uncomfortable like EVERYONE is listening. They will get the hang of it after a few times though. After we have several discussions to practice, I will sometimes assign another group to observe the discussion to look for good listening and speaking skills. That's later though!
It is important for all students to come prepared with the story, the answer to the discussion question from the previous lesson, and a pencil. I will review and post the expectations that students came up with prior to the discussion to set the tone.
You will need a blank paper to write on. This is a Jr. Great Books idea that I have modified over the years. I make a seating chart on the paper, and record the gist of what students are saying. This helps me keep track of who is talking and who isn't. Plus I have major "mommy brain" at times, and I can't remember what happened 30 seconds ago. The chart helps me keep track so that I can help them make connections through out the conversation.
Once everyone is seated in a circle, it is time to begin!
The teachers job is to facilitate the conversation. In a dream world, I would pose the initial question, and the students would keep the conversation alive. This doesn't happen right away of course. I do start out by posing the initial question and then asking the students who would like to go first. I encourage them to talk to each other, not me. Sometimes I have to leave the circle to make sure this happens. I also tell them that they don't need to raise their hands. We already agreed to take turns, so if you notice someone hasn't had a chance to speak, ask them what they think. This also takes awhile to perfect.
After we've discussed the initial question, I come prepared to subsequent questions to keep the discussion going. Eventually, the students will come prepared with their own questions.
My questions are interpretive, meaning they could have more than one answer. I keep everything based on textual evidence and avoid questions that lead to speculation. (ie. Will Squeaky go to the Olympics?)
The general way I write questions is by thinking:
Why did a character do or say this?
Why did the author choose to do this?
I really try to stay out of the discussion, but at first I have to jump in and model how the students should interact with each other.
I will have to teach them how to disagree with the idea, not the person, by saying, "I disagree with your IDEA because...."
I also have to jump in a million times at first and say, "What textual evidence do you have to support your claim?"
It is important to keep the kids going back to the text. It is so powerful to watch and see those light bulbs go off in their heads.
It never fails. I always cry in these discussions because a student will say something that is so insightful and amazing. Shared Inquiry can become such a powerful tool in the classroom if you stick with it long enough to work out the kinks.
As the students discuss, I jot down notes or questions that I have for them. When the discussion fizzles out, usually after 10 minutes or so, I ask if anyone has a closing statement. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't!
I ask them to go back to their seats and write down at least one new insight they had during the discussion on the bottom of their original answer. Many times students will totally change their perspectives on the story by the end of the discussion, and I like to capture that before they forget.
It's now time for the next discussion group to talk while the remaining 2 or 3 groups continue to work on their assignments.
While you are working with your small discussion group, have the rest of the class work on alternative assignments. One of my assignments was an Interpreting Words worksheet from the Jr. Great Books company. I like this assignment because it allows the students to dive deeper into the meaning and usage of the word "respect." They look at people that respect each other and don't respect each other. They end by answering an interpretive question about Squeaky's lack of respect for girls who pretend to be flowers, strawberries, or fairies, instead of being themselves.
After this, I want the students to extend their knowledge of the story through writing. I started by giving them these two options: Write a ONE page story where you invent a strong, opinionated character like Squeaky or Write a ONE page essay to share if you agree with Squeaky that girls have trouble being honest in their friendships.
I also let my students come up with their own ideas. Some of the alternative ideas they generated this time were:
I almost always let students create their own options because they can be so creative, and they tend to get excited if they come up with something on their own. If the idea isn't rigorous enough, I help them add to it to make it better.
The idea is that while you are discussing with your small group, the rest of class is working independently.
Since this was my first discussion, I did have to stop periodically at first and redirect the non-dicussers. Many were off task at first, but once I made it clear that they would be working independently, they were fine. By the end of the period, I was running the discussion groups without any interruptions. I also assigned a student as a "go to" person if questions arise while I am unavailable.
Each discussion took around 10 minutes if there were not interruptions.