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

The Wait is Over

What a productive week it has been… in terms of my thinking. I feel like I have made incredible progress, even though nothing tangible has happened… yet! I knew before this school year began that I wanted to get my students blogging. I also knew I was in love with the idea of Genius Hour. Here it is, January- and I cannot check either off of my To Do list. I feel confident though, that all of that will change for me this week. And the best part is, that once we begin, forward motion will ensue no matter what. What happened in the last week to push me forward from dreaming to doing? Just right collaboration, and faith… that’s what! A couple of months ago I brought my nagging “I really want to have a genius hour” plea to my high school teacher friend, who was further along in the process than me. I listened to her stories, her “what I’d do next times” and gained confidence as she reflected. Continue reading “The Wait is Over”

Student Engagement… Strategy #1

Jigsaw it! jigsaw

Regardless of the subject, brain research tells us we need many rehearsals (+20…yikes!) for new learning to stick! Learners rehearse learning when they are actually engaged in it. And, just to be clear… a worksheet with 20 math problems does not equal 20 rehearsals…( awwww, maaaan!) So, let’s consider the value of a jigsaw!

Continue reading “Student Engagement… Strategy #1”

Are we asking too much? Who’s getting Shortchanged?

What would parents think if they knew?

I find that the majority of first year teachers I support teach in multi-age, self-contained special education classrooms. Many of the challenges they face are unique to this setting and predictable to administrators and veteran teachers in the school. Many of these challenges are also driving potentially long term and high quality special educators out of these settings and into other positions.

There are two major issues of equity that I see as prohibiting these programs from being the vehicle by which students’ transition back into the general education setting is supported and encouraged.

Access to Curriculum

There are two issues within access to curriculum. First- teacher expertise. I have yet to see a school or district find a way to provide the same professional development opportunities to the classroom teacher with students in grades 5-8 in his room as provided to the sixth grade math and science teacher next door. By professional development, I mean more than just the once or twice yearly content and strategy workshops (although that would be a start). The sixth grade math and science teachers meet bi-weekly as a cohort to plan, develop common assessments, problem solve around student misconceptions and work together to design ways to skillfully differentiate instruction by scaffolding a challenging topic in next week’s lessons. Throughout their time together, these teachers reflect, build on experiences, analyze student work and support each other. The good news for the students in sixth grade general education math and science classes is that they will reap the benefits of their teachers’ work for years to come. The level of expertise of these educators continues to grow as they interact as a community of professionals. This is an excellent example of teachers leading their own professional development. They’ll likely pass along any materials they created to Tim, the self-contained special educator, and someone will probably stop in his room to recap the learning… but just like in a classroom where 21st Century Skills are paramount, the growth and development of the learners is a result of actively participating in the learning experience, not just accessing the paper and pencil product. All of these teachers have the best of intentions. Continue reading “Are we asking too much? Who’s getting Shortchanged?”