SPIDER intro

But for now, take a stab at it, no matter what your discipline. These words appeared towards the end of Alexis Wiggins’ post on her blog Models By Design and were the encouragement I need to try something new. As my school year progresses, a familiar, yet undesired, feeling sets in during class discussions. Conversation participants dwindle until a few voices ring out and the other students settle into their holding pattern of silence. I want a class where students engage in ideas with each other and my role as a sounding board or conversation cheerleader is removed.

In her post, Alexis nicely lays out her conversation framework so please give it a read. I decided to give SPIDER a go with a 6th grade and a 7th grade class. Both classes are in a genetics unit and I used this NY Times article as a basis for conversation. The article was challenging for a lot of students so I offered two guiding questions with low-risk entry points as conversation starters:

  1. How are people the same/different?
  2. Is it important to have competing ideas? (why/why not)

[An area of improvement for me lies in my ability to formulate great key questions. With these two questions, my intent was to provide students opportunity to talk about genetics while also exploring a central element of science – competing ideas.]

Students were given the article during the previous class with a quick overview and asked to prepare notes for the future discussion.

So, how did it go? Due to schedules, my sixth graders took on the first conversation. I was a bit unsure how I wanted to begin. Should I provide guidelines, encouragement or some other opening talk? I finally decided to do nothing and let the students begin as they saw fit.  One student asked another if he wanted to get things started and he began by reading the first question and then providing some initial thoughts. Other students joined in. Some had a hard time with hand-raising conditioning. They raised their hands and waited. Others responded, “Don’t raise your hands. Just speak” and eventually the hand raising stopped and a conversation flowed. Here is the web:

G6 SPIDER 1All in all, I was impressed by their conversation. A few students were not ready to jump into the conversation but the others did not forget about them. They used direct questions to engage quieter students. In one instance, after several direct questions the student warmed up and increased his level of participation. One student was the self-appointed facilitator and did a solid job directing the conversation.

At first, the conversation stayed on the surface but as a student began recapping the conversation revived itself. “Let’s come up with a conclusion. From what everyone has said, this is what I believe is our conclusion.”

A few ideas had not previously made sense and as he again put them forward more talk ensued. They then began delving deeper into ideas and debating different views as to how the population with this gene mutation could have begun.

The 7th graders faced more challenges in their conversation. This group is dominated by a few students who command air time and joined by others without a lot of confidence using G7 SPIDEREnglish. Their conversation began by students directly reading single line sentences as a response to the question. Then silence. Finally, the talkative ones began conversing and had a lively discussion.  Some students rarely spoke as this group did not have a student who consistently reached out to others to hear alternative view points.

For me, I enjoyed the time provided to sit back and listen to the thoughts of my students. Creating the web offered a great visual for the students at the end of their conversation. (Both groups talked for approximately 30 minutes.) For the 6th graders, the time flew by and when I asked them how much time had passed at the end, they did not know. The 7th graders had multiple points of silence and seemed quite relieved when the conversation ended.

Students completed an individual reflection at the end of their conversation. A few student comments:

Did you feel as if your voice was heard?

  • “Yes, I feel that my voice was heard because of all the comments/competing ideas after I finished my sentence.”
  • “Yes when I had an idea I shared and I don’t think I was ever left out of conversation.”
  • “Not really – only a few. Because I think many word are too hard for me. But I enjoy to read. To hear they talk or know what is talking about.”
  • “Nervous, I don’t talk much so when I speak out my idea or question, I am afraid that they think the idea or question is bad.”

What was challenging for you?

  • “The challenge was to talk. I wanted to talk with the guys and ask questions. But I’m very shy because I don’t speak English very well.”
  • “When a group of people was talking about deeper thought and I don’t fully understand.”
  • “When someone ask me a question or ask my my idea, I don’t know what to say.”
  • “It was challenging to king of ‘walk backwards in time’ and trying to come up with a reasonable theory.”
  • “It was challenging answering the question. I was nervous at the conclusion of the discussion that some people’s ideas were left out.”

These comments give us something to work towards. As I work with ELLs, I realize the need for increased opportunity to speak in safe environments. A large block of time dedicated to student conversation is important for this to develop. At first a student may lack the confidence but with extended practice I think they will take more risks as the group supports and provides a safe place for ideas.

I’m energized after this first pass and thank Alexis for putting both her ideas and encouragement out for others. I look forward to an increased level of student conversation.



Student Thoughts

I recently asked students to provide some input on their processing, communication and thinking about a problem. A few responses dealing with group work:

Did you give space to others to allow them to share their ideas?

  • Yes, because maybe others have better ideas.
  • I think I could hear others’ advice more but I did try this time.
  • Not the most but some. I feel like some members liked to wait and listen to the talkative ones to make decisions. I think they should stand up and speak more.
  • Yes because I asked other students their thoughts. No, because I spoke Chinese and made it hard for another student to fit in.
  • Maybe not enough, seeing that I was the one who probably talked the most.

Did you have a voice and feel comfortable sharing your ideas?

  • I usually don’t because if I tell them something wrong I would lead them astray. 
  • I think I did have a voice and felt comfortable sharing ideas because they would be accepted or at least evaluated if they are valid or not.
  • I think I would if I have some ideas.
  • Yes, I feel like I can talk to group mates and tell them what we can do.

Interactions between students are important to me. Whiteboards are great in providing a meeting place for work. However, as students work many interactions pass by without my hearing. Are they being respectful to each other? Are the voices of various students being heard? Student reflections provide a snapshot of these interactions. Over the course of the year, several of the more talkative students have begun to slow down and ask for the thoughts of quieter group members. Would they be doing this if I didn’t explicitly ask them to think about giving space?

I’m still puzzling over how to help out and provide more access to those students who are scared of leading partners “astray”. I also think I need more pointed (and well written) reflection questions.