George Lucas Educational Foundation
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ELA students in a group discussion.

For many of us who are intimidated by the idea of "rigor" and exactly what it means to make our lessons more rigorous, thinking about it as a routine can make it more real and doable for us. Because to really raise rigor and push our students, it's not about anything more that we can teach them, it's about setting up the right environment for them to think critically and engage in analysis and problem solving. Discussion is one fail-safe way to do this, no matter the content area. Our math teacher leaders have really been pushing discussion as a key to rigor. Here are some ways to set up a strong discussion routine in your class.

Have Official "Discussion Times"

If you're a relatively new teacher, setting aside a specific discussion time each week will help hold you accountable to sticking with it if the kids come to expect it every week. And remember, this is for all content areas, not just ELA.

Keep Discussion Days Simple

All of your effort preparing for these days should be directed toward coming up with great questions, not toward designing a fancy lesson. When I had discussions in my classroom, the day always ran exactly the same way. This predictability made the prep less stressful, and then the kids could get their minds primed for the kind of thinking they knew would be coming each time. Mine always followed this schedule:

  1. A "Do First" that reviewed the content or reading
  2. Groups choosing the questions or problems they wanted to discuss
  3. Silent writing or work time on the questions
  4. Group discussions
  5. Whole class discussion

I didn't have a fancy PowerPoint on these days, just a simple handout with the discussion questions and then an anchor chart with the procedure for discussion days. That way, all my planning time went into crafting questions.

Get Out of the Way

This one was so hard for me! Through a combination of excitement about the content and impatience for my students to make the high-level connections, I sometimes blurted out those connections before they could get there. One solution for me was having them break into small discussion or problem-solving groups as often as possible. When we did whole-class discussion for too long, either I would accidentally do much of the thinking for them, or they would spend the whole time trying to give the answer they thought I wanted to hear. When they worked in groups, I was better able to keep my mouth shut.

Writing = Thinking

This is a huge truth and a key to all students reaching high levels of rigorous thinking. Periodically during discussion and at the end, stop and have students silently write in complete sentences for a few minutes (not just 30 seconds!) about the previous or upcoming questions or problems. This makes sure that all students are processing the discussion so far, not just the students who have been speaking up. Writing often results in students making new connections and coming up with even more ideas to share.

How have you encouraged your classes to have rigorous discussions on a regular basis?

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Cynthia Zamora's picture
Cynthia Zamora
3rd Grade Bilingual Teacher from San Juan, Texas

One way that I have focused on more rigorous questioning skills is by using Bloom's questions stems to incorporate into my questioning. I have the students work in small groups with different questions that they will ask about the content we are studying. Currently we are reading a chapter book as a class and each group has a set of questions that I have created. When we are done with a chapter the students are given a set amount of time to ask each other one of the five questions that are on the cards. Each student must ask a question and each student must answer the question. If they get stuck they can ask for help, but they are each accountable to their group. When we have completed five chapters the students reflect on the prior days questions and develop five of their own based on the answers and question from the prior days. This has allowed me to see how they are interpreting the story and building their own ideas to develop questions. There are rules about the type of questions that can not be asked because they are too low level and I have an anchor chart about what low level questions are. The students are learning to ask and develop their own questioning by using their own ideas from the reading. This did take time and I am really just starting to see their development progress.

Crystal Wills's picture
Crystal Wills
Kindergarten Teacher from Maryland

At my school we are required to use Bloom's question stems to get the children to respond on a higher level. It has been very difficult in Kindergarten. In a classroom where the students may or may not engage in conversations that require more than one word answers, let alone in English I am just now able to get my students to really think about the questions being asked and the responses they give. Do you have any suggestions for seeing this earlier in the year? Or do you think it is appropriate progress for Kindergarteners?

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

This year I wanted to set up a classroom culture that would allow for more discussions. So, we started small by pairing our discussions with close-reading practices and generating basic questions. I chose some "model" students (usually my more outgoing and brave students) to start the first round of discussions with the rest of the students evaluating their conversation with a rubric. Then we break into smaller groups to try it out without any formal evaluations. We reflect on what worked and what didn't.

I've learned through trial and error that my more quiet students aren't sure where to jump in, so we created sentence stems to help them even when the discussion is moving too fast (e.g. I wanted to go back to the point that so-and-so made... or I heard someone say _____ and I wanted to respond to that...) And a big part of our rubric is listening skills so that my more outgoing students need to demonstrate how well they listen by engaging other speakers and rephrasing something they've said. So far, it's going well! And my students look forward to it each week.

Ironically, that hardest part has been for me! I have to get out of the way and let them start the discussion. It's always rocky at the beginning, but I move myself out of the way and just listen. My sophomores have blown me away with their insights, curiosity, and defenses. And I realized that I would have never got to witness that if I didn't occasionally embrace the silence and let them think.

Petra Claflin's picture
Petra Claflin
Manager of Digital Media and head blogger for YES Prep Public Schools.

I know a lot of teachers who have had success giving students sentence stems to help them answer in complete sentences and help frame their thoughts. For example, I think the answer is ________ because ________. Or I can describe the character as _____ because in the story she does ______. By using these the students are getting used to speaking in complete sentences and learning proper sentence patterns in English without having to come up with all of the words on their own.

Amy Burge's picture
Amy Burge
6th grade LA and world studies teacher in Blanding, Utah

Do any of you have a list of general rules for class/group discussions?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Amy, a great place to start is have the class develop the rules together as an activity. If the students are invested in them from the beginning, it'll be a lot easier when you point to them later and say, "Remember, here's what we all agreed together..."

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

If you have students choose the next student who participates in the discussion it will increase participation. I consistently get about 30% more kids raising their hands when I use this method. I tell the kids to "choose someone else to add to the discussion." Kids like having the control of choosing someone who has their hand up. I also incorporate students as teachers. The students take turns sitting in my chair or spot at circle and teach the class what they know about a question or topic.

The rules we establish in my room all come from the students. Well, that's not entirely true...I tell them I ALWAYS expect honesty. I tell them it's the ONLY thing I don't allow mistakes on because they were there, they know what happened, no matter how hard it is, I need the truth and I think I usually get it. Anyway, we call them expectations not rules. Through our discussions I ask them these types of questions: "Jesse, what do you expect Peter to do to help you get your work done." "Lisa, what do you expect from Linda while you sit at circle?" I teach them how to state things in the positive, not the negative. For example, instead of "We don't talk while someone else is talking." I want them to say what they WILL do. "We stay quiet while someone else is talking."

We have a separate list of expectations for discussions that we create through a separate activity. Sometimes I need to facilitate or ask them questions to come up with a solid list, but most of the time (even on a first grade level) kids come up with a thorough list of expectations. I usually type up the long list of kid generated expectations on the smart board. I have the kids look over the long list, then I hide it. I ask them what was on the list and they can usually only come up with a handful of them. So I make the point that we need to simplify it. So we start by color coding similar student statements. After that we group similar expectations together and create category names. What we end up with is a narrowed list of 4-6 categories of basic expectations that ALL the student statements fall under.

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