In the previous lesson, students were asked two questions about the Hemmingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants” and they were asked to answer one of the two questions. Students were given the option of answering whichever one they were interested in answering and explaining in writing. The two questions were: Does the American love Jig? What is Jig going to do? These questions were written on the board and we created this chart on the board, in which students made their answer public by placing a sticky note with their name on it under the answer they selected.
Students were also given some time to draft an outline of their response to the question they selected and to begin gathering support for their response. They are essentially formulating a claim and supporting it with textual evidence. Today they are going to test the validity of these claims by discussing them in small groups. They have done this before for a different topic.
I check in with students regarding the progress of their written outline. Specifically, I want them to figure out if they are ready to discuss their claim and evidence with their classmates. I expect them to ask for a few minutes to prepare so I give them a few minutes to look over their working claims and add to them.
I let them know they are about to engage in a small group discussion to test the validity of their claims. I use the results of the chart on the board to create groups of students who selected the same question but have differing answers. This is an effort to spark a more interesting discussion. I remind them of the rules for this activity. The following is a description of the rules and the rationale, which are also in the lesson where I introduce this activity”
Each group member will get four minutes to share their working claim and evidence and to receive feedback from their group members.
While a student presents, the job of the rest of the group members is to find the weak points in the argument presented and point them out to the student presenting.
They are to discuss one student’s working claim and evidence for the entire four minutes.
The purpose of this activity is to give all students an opportunity to test their working claim and make it better. My students have a difficult time identifying weaknesses in their written ideas. As a result, I often get written work that contains brilliant ideas mixed in with weak ideas and little sense that students are able to recognize the difference. To address this need, I have been engaging students in activities like the one in today’s lesson to push them to identify holes in each other’s arguments. Although they also need to learn to identify the weak points in their writing alone, doing this in collaboration has multiple benefits. Students are able to practice speaking and listening skills, they have four brains evaluating one argument, and they are all exposed to the different perspectives that naturally exist in a class of 26. To help students understand what we are essentially doing, I have already been using a few phrases that I also use today. I tell them, “You need to find the weak point in the argument and punch a hole through it.” I also tell them that they are “playing devil's advocates.” Also, when I suggest what they should pay special attention to I suggest a list of things they should “attack.” I have already made sure they know the aggressive connotations of these phrases are figurative. They are still expected to discuss the weaknesses in each other’s argument with respect and in the form of an academic discussion.
I also remind them of some guidelines I have given them to help them identify the weaknesses in an argument. I remind them that a strong claim establishes a sophisticated idea and is supported by textual evidence. An explanation like this one is often too abstract for my students so I also try and make it more concrete for them. Specifically, I tell them that in today’s discussions, they are to “attack” any of the following by asking the question that follows each:
“Is this a significant idea?”
“How does this evidence support your claim?”
Interpretation of the evidence
“Is there an alternative interpretation?”
Understanding of the characters
“Is this what the character means?”
I also remind them of the chart I have on the wall of appropriate ways of phrasing questions and comments during and academic discussion and suggest appropriate ways of “attacking” their classmates’ arguments.
Today, I also remind them that some tried to use part of the four-minute round to take care of personal needs, such as sharpening a pencil or getting tissue, and that I expect them not to do this again. I explain that four minutes is nowhere near enough to thoroughly evaluate an argument and receive feedback so they need to push themselves to “think like a teacher” and predict what Ms. Soto would say about their classmate’s argument. I am trying to get them to access their memories of all the times I have conferenced with them about their written work.
Students are now ready to present to each other and discuss.
Like the first time I did this, I give groups 30 seconds to decide who is number 1, 2, 3, and 4. After 30 seconds are up I verify they made this decision by asking number 1s to raise their hand so I can see that each group has selected number 1. I do the same with the other numbers. This is an important procedural step for my students because there have been times when certain groups decide not to plan for things like this and when it is time for the discussion to begin, they sit there looking at each other waiting for someone to volunteer. Now that we have a clear order in which students are presenting, I can set my watch to give the first student four minutes to present and get feedback. During this time I walk around and listen in on their conversations. I only speak directly to students if I see that whatever comment I make will help them continue their discussion. When 3.5 minutes have gone by, I ask that whoever is talking finish that last statement and then I stop this first round. I ask the second student to be ready and then set the watch again for four minutes. I do the same for student three and four.
Even though we have had several small group discussions in this class, students are still new to this experience and are still learning to carry out a good academic discussion. It helps to send out a few messages and warnings before they start discussing, during discussions to specific groups that need it or any time it seems necessary. I tell them, "This is an opportunity for you to strengthen your argument. Take advantage of the brains at your table."
"Four minutes is a limited amount of time for the task at hand so there is no such thing as “we are done discussing” where there is still time left. This is another reminder to not use this time to take care of personal needs."
"You are purposely trying to find weaknesses in your friend’s argument, but you are not doing this to be mean. What you’re doing is going to help them write better."
Once all four students have presented, I give them all time to jot down the comments their group members made about their claims and evidence. It is important to give them this time because the information is still fresh in their mind and if they need help remembering a specific comment or question, they can just ask whoever said it. I give them about 5 minutes for this.
I spend the last five minutes of class asking students to share what came out of these discussions. Specifically, I ask students if they changed their mind about anything. I also ask them to share specific modifications they plan on making to their claims. Finally, I ask them what was helpful about these discussions.
I let them know they are going to draft a formal paragraph about this during the next class period.