Teaching Opinion

Seven Tips for Student-Driven Discussions of Novels

By Ariel Sacks — November 08, 2017 4 min read
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My favorite part of a whole novel study is the week we hold student-driven discussions of the book. Students have completed reading the whole novel and are eager to share and investigate what they experienced. These inquiry-oriented tips can also be used with other kinds of texts.

Tip 1: Try waiting until students have finished the whole text to hold formal discussions. If students have not read the whole text, the discussion will naturally revolve around answering the questions of “what is happening here?” and “what else might happen?” When the teacher has read the entire text, but students have not, it’s difficult and impractical for students to lead. The teacher has a huge advantage in offering analysis and pointing out significance of specific moments, in light of the whole. When we allow students to experience the whole picture for themselves and then discuss, their responses carry more weight and the discussion can go deeper without the teacher falling into the “chief thinker” role. For more on how to make this “whole novel” approach work, check out this blog post, and this book.

Tip 2: Try sitting in a circle. This may be the easiest adjustment to make to empower students to engage in and lead their discussions. When students are seated in a circle (or U-shape), they can see and hear each other speak. When students are sitting in clusters or rows, they may see and hear some but not others. This has an undermining effect on student engagement. Generally, classrooms are set up so everyone can see the teacher, though, and this sets up the teacher to compensate for the lack of student-to-student talk, by leading. Setting up a circle, especially if this is not the norm in your classroom, will also grab students’ attention and signal that something “novel” is about to happen (haha, sorry). I like to ask students to comment on what’s different about sitting in a circle rather than sitting in, say, small groups. What activities is it especially good for? This quick reflection helps students anticipate some of the skills they will be using in discussion.

Tip 3: Don’t prepare questions! Try the go around instead. For many teachers, this is an anxiety-provoking proposition. We pride ourselves on being able to ask good questions—and we are excellent at leading students to ideas through our questioning. But if we want students to take the lead, we need to step back, and let them decide what’s important to talk about, and ask and explore their own questions. Here is the structure I use, instead of posing questions:

  • The Go-Around: Go around the circle (I do this with half the class at a time, so this is about 10-14 students) and each student must say something about the book—for example, a part or a character they loved, hated, found confusing, want to comment on, etc. They could also take this chance to respond to a previous comment, but it’s not a requirement at this point. (Video clip)
  • I take notes on everything students say. It looks like a verbatim script.
  • After we have completed one Go-Around, the discussion is open. Anyone may speak, picking up on any of the points brought up in the Go-Around.
  • I do not direct the content of the discussion, but I play a role as facilitator (more on this below).
  • At the end of the session, I have the group create one or two homework questions, which would allow students to take ideas that came up in the conversation further in writing, and these can be the opener for the next day’s discussion session. [Video Clip]

Tip 4: Look out for strong reactions and debates. As the student-driven discussion unfolds, I look out for points of interest and/or disagreement. Sometimes the discussion naturally goes there, but other times it can seem to meander or ping pong from one topic to another. One way I can help is to call attention to a question or debate that is arising in students’ comments. I might say, “I notice that many of you seem to be saying that Character X is acting selfishly, but Student K suggests that the character is doing what she needs to do to help her family. Which is it? How can we figure this out?” This helps students find a focus point to explore more deeply.

Tip 5: Try these magic words. There are some simple phrases that I’ve found are superbly helpful in facilitating students’ investigation of their questions and ideas, without determining the content or guiding their interpretations. Here they are:

Tip 6: Emphasize rereading together. Once students are turning to the text to find support for their ideas, rereading whole sections together as a group can be very powerful. I train students to do this. When one student says, “Look, it’s on page 71,” I direct all students to turn to page 71, and wait for everyone to do so. Then a volunteer (could be original student or another student) reads aloud while we follow along. I might also invite students to signal if they want to pause so they can comment. After students become used to this format for literature discussions, students do find relevant sections and reread together without my prompting. [video clip] Later in the year, my students lead their own discussions in smaller groups without my facilitation.

Tip 7: Relax. Trust the students, the literature, and the process. We experience so much pressure as teachers, and students do too. An authentically student-driven exploration of a novel is somewhat rare and will take some getting used to for all involved. Students may hear you say that they are leading the discussion, but they will be looking for you to contradict yourself, by evaluating what they say and directing them to the points you think are most important. It may take some time for students to trust the process, and the more you can model that trust, the better.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.