Friday , 19 January 2018
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Deeper Classroom Discussions

We know them, the students who LOVE to participate in collaborative discussions.  They seem to constantly have something to add to the conversation.  These kids keep our classes lively and keep teachers on their toes!  We also have those other students who, during class discussions, rarely speak up – preferring instead to listen. However, if directly asked a question, often these are the students that wow us with their insights because they have actually taken the time to process, reflect, and listen to their peers.  So, how do we foster this deeper discussion that includes all of our students?

When I was a classroom teacher, I loved engaging in Paideia Seminars with my students.  After some intense training, I learned to step away and create questions that were so rich and deep that students, with support, could maintain a rich discussion from 30-45 minutes with little input at all from me.  It would be ridiculous to think that this one article could provide all the information you need to go out and try the Paideia method, but one of the things that really helped me get my class ready for discussions was providing them with a handout to prepare them for the classroom discussion (See below.)

First, I had students read through the entire page silently, marking the items they felt would be most challenging for them.

Next, we went around the room and students took turns reading each bullet.  Students lifted a hand during the reading of that bullet if they had marked it as an area of challenge.

Then, I allowed each student to silently write a personal goal for our seminar (or class discussion) that directly addressed their areas of challenge.

Just giving kids the opportunity for meta-cognition prior to engaging in a discussion led to better results.  It was just the first step to better discussions, but it was a really important one.

One of the most uniquely fun, thought-provoking elements of this class will be seminars.  Seminars provide opportunities for you to express your ideas, share the insights you gain from reading, explain your convictions, and hear points-of-view that you may not have considered.

The following guidelines will help you understand how a seminar works and your role in a seminar.  As you read, place a checkmark beside 1-3 bullets that you think may be the most difficult for you.  Write down your personal goal for today’s seminar on a separate sheet of paper.

  • All participants will be seated in the circle where all participants can see each other.
  • Read and reread the text carefully.  Annotate if possible.  Use sticky notes if we are using a textbook.
  • Use the text to justify your responses to questions.
  • Think beyond your initial reaction to the text.  A change of opinion is completely acceptable as long as you are thinking and discovering new information.
  • Keep all responses within the confines of the text unless otherwise directed.  DO NOT refer to outside texts, films, or other media to push your point.  Prove your point with the text.
  • Listen to your classmates with an open mind.  Take in their points-of-view.  Respond to their responses as well as to questions posed by the facilitator.
  • Think carefully about new ideas before you accept or reject them.
  • Respect ideas presented by other participants.  It is fine to disagree.  However, everyone should feel free to express his/her ideas without fear of ridicule.
  • It is ok to ask questions.  If a classmate makes a comment that you do not understand or do not accept, you may question the participant.
  • Do not interrupt when someone else is talking simply because you disagree. 
  • Avoid being rude if you disagree with a classmate’s point-of-view.
  • Try not to direct your responses to the teacher.  Look to the other participants.  You are in a conversation with your classmates.  A hand raised will not be acknowledged.
  • Everyone should participate.  One or two people should not dominate the seminar.  Likewise, no one should sit silently without commenting.
  • You must think, react, and speak independently.  Sometimes, you may have to “step out on a limb” if you are not sure exactly what you think.  It is ok to be confused.

For more about Paideia Seminars, click here.

About Heather Mullins

Heather Mullins is the Chief Academic Officer in Newton-Conover City Schools. She is a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who spent 12 years as a high school English Teacher. She received her B.S.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Western Carolina University. Heather completed her National Board Certification in Adolescent Young Adult English Language Arts in 2002. She holds an M.Ed. in Academically and Intellectually Gifted from UNC-Charlotte. Heather has served as a Curriculum Specialist in Hickory City Schools, an adjunct professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and a Professional Development Consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. She completed her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through Western Carolina University. Heather is one of the co-founders of #NCed Chat, North Carolina’s first Twitter chat for teachers. She is passionate about innovative practices, instructional technology, student ownership of learning, and supporting teachers. Heather serves on the advisory board for the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, North Carolina School for the Deaf and Catawba Science Center. She is a recipient of the 2015 NCMLE Central Office Administrator to Watch Award. She also received the 2016 Don Chalker Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership. Heather is the proud mother of one son, Jackson.

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