Building Community through Discussion

Class Discussion Norms

(In my class, these become our Community Norms and replace any “rules”)

A world community painted on hands with doves
Build a community of empathy and caring in your classroom through academic discussion.
  • Equity of Voice: Monitor your airtime. As a group member you are responsible to be a speaker AND a listener. You are also responsible to invite others to speak. Equal(ish) airtime is the goal. Our community values all voices.
  • Active Listening
: Eye contact, nodding, being sure you respond to a comment with a related question or comment. Build on what others say. Our community believes everyone should feel heard.
  • Respect for All Perspectives
: You will not agree with everyone’s ideas. Work to understand their thinking. Our community values diverse perspectives.
  • Safety to Share: Your language, tone, body language and overall behavior should invite others to share differing opinions. Approach others’ ideas with curiosity and an open mind. The goal is never to be right, it is always to learn. Our community values safety.
  • Self-monitor use of Electronics
: It’s hard to feel like your ideas are important when you are speaking to the top of someone’s head because they are staring at their phone or their laptop screen. Our community values you and your ideas.

*Adapted from the norms used by the New Teacher Center during the best trainings of my life!


How Can We Create A Community that Values these Norms?

I gradually release student responsibility. Here’s how:

  • Sentence Stems & Explicit Instruction. Require their use. Fishbowl small groups. Analyze their discussion as a class. Data collection tip- let observers record tic marks for certain sentence stems or behaviors you’ve agreed are important. Current Events Discussions are a great way to practice these skills within an organized structure!
  • Conduct whole group discussions- focusing on the norms and sentence stems. REALLY focusing on them. With the same vigor you focus on routines and procedure in September. You hate yourself when you relax about them in November and vow you’ll never do that again. Do better with this. They need the structure to feel safe.
  • Pull small groups for discussions (maybe even half the class). Coach them. Invite a few students to be observers/ analyzers with you. Share the highlights with the whole class. Find observation sheets here.
  • When you feel they are ready, divide the class into small groups (4-5 students max). Let them discuss! While you monitor, record excellent phrases and interactions and share them publicly as soon as it’s over! Provide students an opportunity to reflect on paper after discussion. Download my free Discussion Reflection Activity when you subscribe below.
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3 Classroom Discussion Musts

Using Sentence Stems and Explicit Instruction for Classroom Discussions

Teaching discussion skills can be daunting! You know you want productive, positive discussions… but how do you get there? Here’s some of what works for me!

  1. Body Language & Politeness Matter
  • Eye Contact: looking directly at the speaker lets them know they have your attention
  • Inviting Posture: Facing your body toward the speaker with an open posture invites them to share. Avoid crossed arms if you can!
  • Use your group member’s name when addressing them.
    Ex. “Dan, can you tell me more about what you thought the author meant by…”

man crossing arms

2. Paraphrasing lets the speaker know you have listened and understand.

  • So,…
  • In other words,
  • …It sounds like…
  • There are some key points you’re bringing up…
  • From what you’re saying,…

3. Clarifying lets the speaker know you have listened but do not fully understand.

  • Would you tell me a little more about…?
  • Let me see if I understand…
  • Can you tell me more about…
  • It would help me understand if you’d give me an example of…
  • So, are you saying/suggesting…?
  • What do you mean by…?
  • How are you feeling about…?

Let students collect data on their use of these important behaviors! Encouraging them to formally reflect on their performance after each and every discussion instills in them the importance this work.

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Using Current Events as the Context for Structured Academic Conversations

Building a Classroom Community through Academic Conversations

Getting Students to Use that Feedback

I used to cringe watching students stuff papers into their folders to be lost in the locker abyss… after I had spent so much time thoughtfully providing feedback on their work!! I spend so much time writing thoughtful questions about their math thinking and comments aimed at pushing their scientific curiosity… It was killing me to know that none of my feedback was likely going anywhere but the bottom of a messy locker!!! The ultimate frustration.

A few years ago I decided to tackle this problem head on. I knew that students could learn and grow if they sat, and really thought about my feedback. So- I made some changes. I decided to protect some time for exactly that. How could I expect students to read my notes, review the content and reflect on their learning if I didn’t show them how? Students needed to see that I valued their interaction with those assignments if I wanted them to value it too. And so began RRR&R. I dedicate a class period every few weeks to this and students and parents alike have seen the benefits.

My Goal: Students will think about the content, their work habits, and their progress.
This work is not about simply giving students time to change their answers and fix mistakes. This is the time when students will reflect upon the better answers they can come up with for the science test they weren’t proud of, and realize the study guide would have helped! Students need time and repetition to make those connections and draw those conclusions. And, they need to do it themselves.

Things that Matter

Oftentimes, I give students a few choices of assignments they may work on during this time. I don’t want anyone revising spelling homework or a math quiz with a score of 98% correct- I want students to dig deep and to grow. There are many times that I will notate right on an assignment (when I am grading it) that I want it revised. Sometimes I do that when I think my feedback is particularly powerful or if I feel a student is on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Home School Connection

These assignments and reflections might go home to families (there’s a Celebrating Success at Home Page), but ultimately end up back in student portfolios in our classroom. These make great conversation starters for student and family conferences. Students are empowered by their growth, and the language they develop as they learn to describe their learning is powerful.

I hope that this serves you and your students and families well!

Messy papers with student worksheets on top

Teaching with Online Discussions

I decided early this year that I have a responsibility to improve the quality of online discussions. As a teacher, I often feel responsible to improve the world I live in. Knowing each year, that I will spend so many hours every day with so many impressionable, mold-able citizens of the future- can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. I know my time working on digital citizenship is well spent though, because my students have digital footprints that are growing faster than they are!

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Teaching students to have respectful, productive academic discussions online follows the same construct as teaching anything else. Students need to be taught explicitly. Students need clear, timely feedback. Students need to play an active role in creating/ designing the expectations. Students need to be exposed to and evaluate samples of the work they are being asked to create. Continue reading “Teaching with Online Discussions”

7 Ways I’ll Work Smarter in my Next 1:1 Classroom

After using a class set of Chromebooks for the whole second semester of the school year in my sixth grade Humanities class, my brain is spinning with all of the “next time I’ll…” ideas. Here are a few:
1. Simplify & standardize the creation of students’ usernames and passwords. If students are creating an account that is linked to their Google account (GAFE), having them sign in with Google was great! No password or username needed. However, it wasn’t until we had dealt with the annoying, “Um… Mrs. Sullivan, my password’s not working” too many times that one of my students mentioned that there’s a  rule in the library. My school’s amazing media specialist had already trained my students that when creating any online account they had to use their email prefix for the username (complete w/ a sequence of numbers, so no one ever got a message that their username of choice was already taken) and their lunch number for their password. As often happens in middle school- once my students walked out of the Media Center and into my classroom, they disconnected the part of their brain that they used in the Media Center. Luckily, someone had a moment of clarity… followed by a collective, “Oh yeah…” from her classmates!
2. Collaborate in product and credit. Very often I’d assign students to work together on a digital creation. As a partnership or small group they’d present their analysis of a character or pitch a new idea. While working, the students would be using one person’s account, which meant that later if one of the group members wanted to access that product they wouldn’t be able to log in and see it. This really didn’t pose many problems, however at the end of the year it occurred to me that we could avoid problems with a simple procedure. Each time students work collaboratively, they sent an email with the link and embed code to me and all group members. In the subject line, they wrote the assignment title. This was helpful because many students wanted to embed a Powtoon or Amimoto video on their blog or in their digital portfolio, and would need the embed code to do that. Note: this was not an issue when working in Google Docs, as students can easily share access.

3. Classroom Jobs: Technology Managers pass out and collect Chrome books and manage easy to tangle plugs. Help Desk Staff- These are students you can go to for help and who manage a Help Desk webpage to answer Frequently Asked Questions through text/ video tutorials.
4. Have students create and keep a Digital Portfolio Page on their website as a place to display (and reflect on) all of the digital creations they make throughout the year. I wish I had done that along the way, instead my students added it at the end of the year. I’m sure they missed some of their creations.
5. Comment on each others blog posts more often. Next time, I think I’d establish a time frame to keep this going all year. This year on a few different occasions I grouped students (across classes) into groups of 4 students. Each was responsible to comment on each of their fellow group members posts and respond to a certain number of comments. They LOVED doing this and I wish I had done it more. It increased the pride students took in their own published work when they knew they would actually have an audience, and they loved checking the stats to see how many visitors they had, which posts were most popular etc. The possibilities are endless here!
6. Encourage students to be each others’ editors more often. Here’s a rubric that students used to peer assess websites. Here’s a digital presentation rubric that my students used to both peer and self-assess their Genius Hour projects. (I adapted these from others that I found somewhere on the web… sorry that I don’t remember where! If you are the original author- thank you! I love your work, please get in touch so I may credit you!)
7. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Essay questions make great platforms for digital creations. Instead of adding an assignment, try replacing one that’s tried and true. For example, I love this assignment that I’ve been giving for a few years now, where students have to take the perspective of either the North or the South the day after the election of 1860. They used to write an editorial that would have appeared in the local newspaper. At the end of the unit, my students would also find a similar essay question on their test. I still love the assignment, the thinking and the discussions! This year though, they worked in groups… and instead of writing an editorial, they created a video that would have gone viral in either the North or the South the day after the election. They still found the same essay question on their test. This was by far- my favorite assignment of the year.

What advice do you have for someone ready to take the edtech plunge?

Got a Case of Website Amnesia?

I frequent a Sunday night Twitter chat, #edchatri, where amazing educators from all over the US help me approach the coming school week with the right attitude. During these chats, I discover amazing resources shared by fellow educators, who I now consider to be my colleagues, despite the geography that separates us. There are some Sunday nights that the quantity of resources shared can be daunting, especially if you battle web-amnesia or web-déjà vus like me. I find myself wondering “What was that page? Was it a .org or .com…” or thinking, “wait, I’ve seen this before!” much too often.

It was during one of those more resource-heavy chats that my relationship with Learnist began, and my world of organization changed forever. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were chatting about Response to Intervention (RTI in teacher-speak), one of the many current educational initiatives with which teachers all over the country are wrestling. I knew that I would certainly lose track of some of the resources being shared. I had no fewer than 8 windows open between the two browsers running  on my computer, each window holding tight to the web address of one more resource I was sure I couldn’t live without.  As I clicked and Tweeted, I kept a legal pad on my desk for extra insurance. I scribbled the URLs that seemed most important and a brief description I hoped would help me remember why I wanted to visit again later.

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As I scrolled back through the Tweets I had missed while scribbling, I saw my first ever Learnist link. Dawn Casey-Rowe had Tweeted, “#edchatri I’m making a learnistboard to summarize RTI links from chat. Helps me use later. Will finish. Here’s link http://bit.ly/SUPSWp.” Clicking on Dawn’s link helped me find the courage to close those windows, stop writing on my legal pad… and actually think about the discussion we were having.

In the coming weeks and months I would use Learnist to support the beginning teachers I was coaching, teachers I supported through Professional Development workshops, and later in my own sixth grade classroom. Continue reading “Got a Case of Website Amnesia?”

Let’s Get Blogging, Kids!

Getting my sixth grade students set up with their own individual blogs was a lot getting myself in the water for the first time on a beach day. The worst are the days I never make it into the water- I regret it all the way home! And just like when I finally take the plunge at the beach, once we set up our blogs, I wished I had done it sooner.

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What worked? To start, I really wanted printed out step by step directions to hand students. In order to make them as accurate as possible, I created a practice web page using my dog’s name, and took notes throughout the process. These tangible directions seemed to be valuable. Many students were able to help themselves, as Continue reading “Let’s Get Blogging, Kids!”

New Year’s Resolutions & Goal Setting Success

As a student, I always saw September as an opportunity to rewrite my story. I could make a good impression on my new teachers. I would keep better track of my materials and assignments and maybe even be one of those kids that seemed to “have it all together.” These days, I still find myself resolving to do better every September, and… I’ve gotten much better at actually making progress toward the goals I set!

One goal at a time. I am more likely to make progress toward my goal if I focus on one at a time. This is really hard for me, but I remind myself that it worked the year I vowed to “use a classroom website in a meaningful way” as well as the year I hoped to “involve families in academics.” The years I pledged to significantly change my assessment methods, overhaul reading conferences and exercise every day, I did not feel nearly as successful.

Share with a supportive colleague. This makes all the difference in the world for me! Having the opportunity to share my goal and talk through it with someone is valuable, especially if we schedule time to reflect on it regularly, and check in on each other. Having a partner prevents me from getting stuck and giving up because we can trouble shoot together and provide support and encouragement. Feeling responsible to someone else keeps me focused and decreases the likelihood that I will get so busy I completely forget that I set a goal!

Know Success. I am much more likely to be successful if I decide in advance what achieving my goal will look like. The year I set a goal to “be more organized” (always a much needed goal for me) I never felt like I had achieved it. I definitely made positive changes in planning and tried out a binder system an amazingly organized colleague showed me… but, I wasn’t clear with myself from the start. Now, I like to brainstorm what success might look like and revisit it and revise it as I work to make progress. (Here are my ideas about what this year’s goal might look like in action.) This way, once I’ve achieved my goal I can think clearly about moving on to another or expanding my work in the same are.

Self-assessing followed by goal setting is a process that supports me in developing or changing my practices. What goal are you working toward this year?

image from doblelol.com
image from doblelol.com