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:
How are people the same/different?
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:
All 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 English. 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.