“Mr. Adam, can I be in the inner circle first?” I hear this sentence from someone every week as students push their desks to create a circle space on the tile floor. They know that they will all get a chance to be in a literature circle, yet for some reason being first matters. But why wouldn’t students be enthusiastic to discuss a book?
In my classroom, students discuss literature by having a “grand conversation.” Compared with other literature circles, a grand conversation—a familiar approach used in Universal Design for Learning, similar to a Socratic seminar—is a student-led process. While the grand conversation format can be used to unpack any type of content, my upper elementary students know they will use this time to engage with one another about the weekly interactive read-aloud.
What is a Grand Conversation?
At its core, a grand conversation frames how students share their opinions and respond to peers about their thoughts and feelings. While the inner circle is speaking about a book, an outer circle of students takes notes on what is being said, knowing that after the conversation is complete, they will have to provide the inner circle with meaningful feedback before switching roles. Not only does the practice promote speaking skills, but active listening is also central to this format.
A grand conversation is neither a back-and-forth dialogue nor a teacher lecture. In other literature circles, teachers grant specific roles to some of the members; for example, a teacher or student may take on the role of facilitator. In a grand conversation, nobody is a facilitator.
As an instructor, this forces me to live in the moment and to trust that I will know what to say when the time comes for me to share. Grand conversation gurus Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds discuss the importance of this collaboration process: “Certainly this is the most difficult and challenging kind of teaching. Teachers must be listeners who avoid domination and act collaboratively.”
A Grand Conversation In Action
A low buzz begins to build in the room as my students open their spiral notebooks and look over the notes that they wrote during the prior day’s read-aloud. Now that the inner circle is seated, the outer circle forms behind them.
As the classroom settles, I go over the norms that we will use during the grand conversation. Even though students know these grand conversation agreements, we always review them to remind ourselves that this is a respectful conversation.
Quickly, I slide down and sit on the floor in the outside circle. During some literature conversations, teachers choose to sit in the circle with their students to help facilitate the discussion, but I prefer to sit in the outside circle, showing the class that they have control. Sometimes, the best moments happen when we get out of the way. I coach in occasionally, but I mostly allow the discussion to unfold.
For example, during a grand conversation on Peppe the Lamplighter, I felt that the discussion had fizzled out. I decided to coach in and say, “I noticed that you were talking about the role of the secondary character. Maybe you can chat about the author’s message.” Quickly, the discussion was fueled again. Except for the moments when I coach in, the students have complete command.
Modeling and Scaffolding the Conversation
This kind of freedom requires preparation so that students know how to have a productive conversation. Prior to implementing grand conversations, many of my lessons focus on body language, how to speak respectfully, and even how to disagree.
When they learn these tools, students take risks and move into a student-led conversation. Faye Brownlie, author of Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses, discusses the importance of students building independence in literature circles: “Once you feel that the students are able to meet independently, let them fly!”
While some students crave to share their thoughts, there are others that are more reserved. To them, a grand conversation is like a game of racquetball where the ball can bounce off any wall at any time. This style of conversation is different from their usual, everyday banter.
Consistency is the most important aspect of the process in teaching students how to speak in a grand conversation format. While the grand conversation happens weekly in my classroom, there are many opportunities for students to engage in discussion with their peers between these times. Being intentional about modeling and teaching communication skills is important in every curriculum.
Using Grand Conversations to Facilitate Self-Assessment
In true collaboration, we must embrace the messy moments. Grand conversations are no different. Some students are driven to share their thoughts, while other students may have a goal to express themselves more. At the same time, the most enthusiastic speaker in the circle may need to work on active listening skills, meaning that everyone has something to work on.
A positive self-assessment tool invites students to make reflections on their communication process and set meaningful goals for future conversations. And serving as a “guide on the side” allows teachers to facilitate formative assessment through active listening, too.
For example, I once had a student discuss the need to write more reflections in their reader’s notebook during the interactive read-aloud. On another occasion, a student set a goal to discuss the author’s message. So, in a way, the definition of a “perfect conversation” is left to individual students. Carving out time for regular self-assessment allows students and teachers to track growth across a unit or term, showcasing how communication skills can build across time.
Teachers of all levels create time for students to practice reading, writing, and math skills. We need to be just as intentional about how we create opportunities for students to participate in meaningful conversations.
Allowing students to take the lead in their learning processes will create a rich, thoughtful curriculum. When we move out of the way, we allow our students to take control and share their critical thinking with us and each other.
Interactive read-aloud texts I’ve used for grand conversations:
- One Green Apple, by Eve Bunting: During this conversation, students discussed how speaking a different language can sometimes be a difficult thing to overcome.
- Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles: My students had a deep conversation about segregation laws. I loved this conversation, because many students felt inspired to participate.
- You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, by Jonah Winter: Sandy, the protagonist of this text, made the choice to not play baseball on his religious holidays. My baseball fans had a rich conversation and made many connections to this decision.