Monday, February 16, 2015

Discussion Protocols In the Classroom

Huddled in groups of three or four sprinkled around the room, books and highlighters in hand, students discuss last night's reading assignment. 

But the conversation isn't the free flowing, back and forth talk you'd expect in a discussion. It's a bit more scripted. 

One student, let's call her "Victim #1" reads a quote she identified prior to joining her group. She has sixty seconds to read the quote and to explain why she chose it: what makes her selection significant, how it relates to the text's theme, or what makes the sentence craft or form remarkable. The trick? No one can else but Victim #1 can speak during her turn. Everyone else listens.

"No one else is speaking! Just the one discussing the quote," I bark when I hear someone asking Victim #1 questions, thereby relieving her of the burden of thinking. "You've got still got fifteen seconds!" I'm a personal trainer or a drill sergeant. "She's got this. Let her feel the burn!"

I call time. We take a brief pause before the second victim takes his minute for his quote. No conversation. Just him expounding on his quote. Partners listen, perhaps highlighting the quote for themselves. Or maybe they are mentally preparing for their turn at bat. 

It's likely that at least one person from each group regrets not having reading the text before coming to class, having merely highlighted a random line prior to this "speed-dating"/discussion mash-up took place. Regardless the reason, everyone looks focused: eyebrows furrowed, bodies leaning in at attention, highlighters tracing the words being discussed (or the words they're just about ready to discuss).

I recently ran several of these discussion protocols, on in each of my classes. In all four, students had a reading assignments that I asked them to annotate by marking at least four "strong lines" - sentences they felt were important. I urged them to qualify what they thought was important,  so there was no way their selections could be "wrong."  The day of the exercise, I asked them to review their "strong lines," making sure they could explain what was so remarkable about their choices. 

Then I divided the class into groups of four, where one students at a time had a minute to share their first quotes Each person had to speak the entire minute, without prompting or questions from their group. If I called time before they were done, they had to stop. if they ran out of stuff to say before I called time, they had to sweat it out until they could think of something else. I walked about the room, keeping time, and monitoring so no one helped "victims" who ran out of words. 

Once each person in the group shared on their first quote, I had students form new groups of four to discuss their second quote, again giving each student one minute to share. I repeated the process a third and fourth round, on for each of the two remaining quotes. And I upped the ante by extending the solo discussion time from a minute to ninety seconds for the last two rounds. 

My teaching goals were multiple. I wanted to students to practice thinking on their feet, sustaining their ideas for lengthening periods of time. I also wanted students to hear the variety of responses their peers had, giving them the chance to unpack the material without me having to lead a discussion. As it is still relatively early in the semester, I wanted to establish a safe environment for sharing ideas. And I wanted students to practice listening without interrupting, perhaps discovering that their peers may share some nuggets of wisdom when given the floor. Plus, this activity made for a good 20 - 30 minutes of student led discussion rather than teacher talk. 

To check the outcomes, I debriefed one of the classes, asking them what they thought and felt about the experience. Here's a summary of what they said:  
Multiple Perspectives; Several students noted how much they liked hearing all the different quotes their peers chose  and the different ways people unpacked the same exact quote. They said it was important to hear the differences and similarities between what they thought and felt and what their peers' experienced (and I'll add . . . without me making commentary). 
Parallels and Patterns: These two words came up often in our debrief. Students felt validated when they heard parallels between their responses. Because we did four rounds and each student heard from twelve different students, they picked up on patterns of ideas that kept coming up, which either affirmed or challenged their own ideas.  Several commented that they were able to make out a broader map, a larger constellation of meaning from sharing (with minimal teacher-talk). 
Content Connection: Because the students got to share what they thought was important, they made greater personal connections to the text. Listening to each others' connections got them to relate to the ideas of the text and to "feel" the significance of the content. hearing others' personal connections made them experience the text's ideas in a more intimate way. They discovered meaning even if they initially had difficulty with the text (without me lecturing).  
Classroom Community Connection: Only one students commented on the artificiality of the protocol, but even that student believed the sharing was important. Folks not only connected with the text, talking and listening helped them to connect with each other. They helped each other build confidence in their own ideas and voices (and all I did was create the conditions). 
Students generally agreed they felt nervous knowing they had to speak for a full minute, but they were pleasantly surprised when they handled it. They grumbled their annoyance and murmured their anxieties when I upped the talk-time to ninety seconds. But they accepted the challenge in stride and succeeded. They realized that talking for ninety seconds about a line of text was do-able. 

I'll do this activity again, upping the ante in different ways for variety. My hope is that as students gain confidence in their voices and practice listening skills, we can have effective unstructured group discussions, conversations where they, with minimal direction, take the lead. The rigid guidelines for these types of structured exercises, for me anyhow, are like training wheels to prepare for actual activities - those unregulated conversations they'll have throughout their academic and professional careers. 

Side note: Let me give credit to the folks at San Diego Area Writing Project for putting me through these types of protocols. By making me feel the burn of these protocols, I discovered their value and figuring out ways to bend the protocols to fit my setting. Many thanks, SDAWP!