Many strategies address the skills of productive discourse, agreeing and disagreeing with peers, and effectively stating an argument. Equally important, yet often overlooked, is the skill of active listening. Through the use of a Fishbowl Discussion, teachers can provide explicit instruction and modeling in both of these areas, helping to mold both active, reflective listeners and thoughtful, direct speakers. In a Fishbowl discussion, students are seated in two concentric circles; an "inner" and "outer" circle. Students seated in the inner circle are engaged in a discussion, while students seated in the outer circle are listening, taking notes, and preparing for their turn to engage in the discussion. After a set amount of time, students switch roles (the "inner" students switch to "outer" and vice versa). Use of this strategy fosters student reflection and forces students to think about their own communication habits and how those contribute to discussions and understanding.
Teacher Preparation and Planning:
Select an appropriate Newsela article or Newsela Text Set for students to read. The article or Text Set should have two clear sides or multiple perspectives so that students can engage in a discussion about the text(s).
Based on the article or Text Set, select a topic for students to discuss. Topics that are controversial, include multiple perspectives, or are something students can relate to are best for this exercise.
Prepare a series of questions related to the topic, such as those included in the resources section, to use during the discussion. As students engage with this strategy over time, they will become more self-sustaining in their discussion, but they will need teacher prompting with questions to scaffold the first few times.
Assign the article or Text Set to students.
Assign the Newsela article or Text Set at the Newsela Recommended reading level for each student. Share with students what the topic of their discussion will be. Teachers may also choose to share a few of the Fishbowl questions they will use so students can take notes on them as they read. Teachers should avoid sharing all of the questions, because then students will not read as authentically; instead, they will be reading for answers.
While reading, students should annotate the article.
Newsela PRO users can have students color-code their annotations:
RED - answer to one of the discussion questions
GREEN - a personal connection
BLUE - something discussion-worthy that students would like to bring up in the discussion
YELLOW - questions about the article
Non-PRO users can have students take notes in a journal or Google Doc to prepare for the discussion.
Divide the class in half and arrange the students' desks in two concentric circles.
Ask an initial question for response. Students on the inner circle should respond.
Teachers can use Participation Cards (included in the resources section) as an accountability measure for students and to keep the flow of the discussion going. Students can hold up their card when they have something to contribute to the discussion. These cards are especially helpful during the first iterations of this strategy; they become less essential as students become more comfortable engaging in longer, sustained discussion.
Students on the outer circle should be taking notes about key ideas, themes, and points they're hearing in the discussion and preparing for their own time in the inner circle. They should also be recording follow-up questions for students on the inner circle.
After a set amount of time, the Inner and Outer Circles should switch, and steps 2-3 should be repeated.
Teachers may choose to repeat the same questions with the second group, especially if they felt that the first group did not have a deep enough discussion or come to the desired conclusion.
Teachers may choose to use new questions with the second group, especially if they feel the first group exhausted most of the possible discussion threads with the first set of questions.
After the discussion has come to an end, students should have a few minutes to process, in writing, how the discussion went. They should answer the following questions:
What remaining questions do I have that were not answered?
Were there any barriers to a good discussion?
How did I contribute to the discussion?
Teacher should initiate a whole-class discussion, first allowing students to ask their remaining questions, and then moving into a debrief about the process and the discussion.
Newsela PRO users may change the Write prompt to have students respond to one of the Fishbowl questions for lesson closure.
Non-PRO users can have students respond with paper and pencil to a writing prompt.
Leave No Trace
Rules: Are They Always Good?
The Future Is Now: Morality & Science
A Fishbowl discussion encourages active discourse and active listening, but students are often unaware of their own listening behaviors. Coupling a Harkness discussion with a Fishbowl discussion can be an excellent way to give students insight into their discussion and listening behaviors.
During the Fishbowl discussion, the teacher should stand to the side with a large piece of chart paper and a marker. The chart paper should have student names listed in the order students are seated in the inner circle.
The teacher should then ask the first Fishbowl question, and put a star on the circle by the student who first answers the question.
As other students begin to respond, the teacher draws a line from the student who spoke to the student who's responded.
Teachers take notes on the outside of the circle about what kind of response the student is making. Are students:
Restating the same idea
Asking a follow-up question
Providing an example
Repeat steps 1-4 with the outer circle.
Share the Harkness maps with students after the discussion, and ask students to discuss with a partner:
What do you notice?
How could we change it to improve our discussion?
Students should respond with an exit ticket answering the following questions about their own participation in the discussion:
What do you notice about your own participation?
How can you change your speaking and listening behavior to make for a better discussion?
Part of what makes a Fishbowl Discussion so powerful is that it provides the opportunity for students to sit back and truly listen to their peers without the stress of instant response. When students are in the outer circle, they're often able to observe peers' strengths, unique experiences, and emotions. For this modification to be most beneficial, teachers should select texts that represent diverse cultures and experiences, such as Newsela's "A Mile in Our Shoes" Text Sets. This shared experience, especially with a masterfully selected text, supports the tenets of Culturally Responsive Teaching and honoring diversity in the classroom.
To hone in on and celebrate diversity in the classroom while building community through a fishbowl discussion, teachers can provide a scaffolded note-taker to students when they're in the outer circle. This note-taker should focus on what students have learned about each other during the discussion.