Reading & Literacy Opinion

Authentic Student-Led Discussion, Music to My Ears

By Starr Sackstein — February 06, 2015 4 min read
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“Don’t look at me to validate your answers.”

“Seriously, put your hands down. Real conversations don’t require a person to call on who gets to speak. Let it be organic. Let it happen. Listen to each other. Share.”

It may sound stern, but ultimately fostering student voice means forcing them to be certain as they assert their ideas. Doesn’t matter what the teacher thinks, it only matters what they think in this scenario.

For too long, students have relied on teachers to tell them what things mean, what symbols to look for or how an author explores characterization and to what end. As an educator, it’s my responsibility to teach kids to trust their instincts, find support and share openly... even if they’re “wrong.”

They must learn to question what they read in a way that works for them.

What a great opportunity for other students to participate and discuss how a “wrong” answer can prompt a deeper discussion of the text itself and generate an opportunity for more ideas about something I may have never even considered, even if I have “taught” a text for years.

With context, comes experience and perspective. Too often, kids are waiting to answer canned questions that can easily be sought out by searching the question online. This approach lacks depth and connection which can offer a superficial read.

Why not allow students to question what they read and then each other?

At its best, student-led discussions are rich with thoughtful commentary about texts that seem antiquated but really aren’t. They are vibrant with opinions and support from the text and they engage a larger number of students.

“I personally love it because then I’m allowed to be wrong; I can say I thought a certain way and then be interrupted by someone who can broaden my view. This way I see things differently and really connect different ideas together. [I also like that] everyone has their own opinion, sometimes you may listen to a classmate with the same ideas, and other times you can be completely twisted around until you see a different perspective. Sometimes the answer you get isn’t what you’re looking for, but you always get a response that can help you see something in a different way,” senior Adva Fuchs said.

At its worst, they can be exclusive and controlled by a few more aggressive participants.

“My experience of participating in a student-led discussion is okay. I would prefer having the discussion done on twitter because than everyone has a voice. I feel like it’s difficult to have a say,” senior Jasmine Tejada shared.

But let’s face it, chances are if the teacher were leading the discussion, these few students would still monopolize the conversation and more likely than not if the teacher isn’t comfortable with wait time (which I wasn’t for a long time) he/she would let it happen.

Ultimately, if all students are given the opportunity to participate, allowing them to control the flow of ideas leads to a better understanding of the text. Teachers are on standby in the event that “help” is needed. Sitting on the outskirts, I remind students to not talk to me, but to each other.

Here are some helpful tips for great student-led discussions:

  • Start by reviewing discussion protocols that include speaking and listening, always adding value with text or ideas rooted in the text.
  • Provide time for students to think about what is to be discussed first. Let them write for a few minutes or review notes if appropriate.
  • Suggest having students develop questions while they read or prepare as conversation starters.
  • Don’t use hands to call on students. Allow students to have a discussion learning how to listen and wait, deferring to each other where necessary.
  • Create a Twitter backchannel so that more reticent students can be heard (as suggested above by Jasmine) - this can be a great way to also get other questions dropped into the fray by students.
  • If one or two students are monopolizing, create a protocol where they need to practice listening for a little while and then they can write down their thoughts and post them to Twitter afterward.
  • Encourage students to piggy-back off ideas of each other. “I agree with ________ when he/she said... because...” or “I disagree with ________________ when he/she said... because...”
  • Encourage students to feel comfortable disagreeing as long as there is evidence to back up ideas.
  • Foster an open environment where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and considered.
  • Allow kids to make connections to other learned information not just in your class, but anything applicable.
  • Give every child an opportunity to hold the floor.

Sometimes I’m working on is making sure my more verbose students don’t dictate the tenor of the discussion. It has been challenging particularly in my AP literature and composition class as some students are naturally more comfortable sharing ideas. We need to urge students out of their comfort zones, allowing reticent students to be in charge and more loquacious kids to listen.

The benefits of student-led conversation are the enrichment of student learning. Any time we can empower students to take charge, we give them more power over how and what matters, this inherently develops more engagement.

How and where do you add opportunities for student-led discussions in your classes? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.