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I grew up in a household where the great events of the day were regularly discussed at our kitchen table.  I learned the art of conversation and the back and forth of debate at the family meal each evening with my parents. I learned a lot from those kitchen table conversations, and so I’ve tried to make discussion a regular part of my classroom. We have 185 days together to debate historical controversies or the contemporary issues of the day. The challenge is to get every student involved in both speaking and listening. 

Strategies for Academic Conversations

In his book, Academic Conversations, Jeff Zwier explains three essential ingredients for effective classroom discussions. First, academic conversations should be structured. Second, they should include small groups where each student has an opportunity to speak.  Third, in whole class debriefing teachers should use a random system for calling on students. He also discusses the skills that kids need to be successful in academic conversations, including: the ability to elaborate and clarify, support their ideas with examples, paraphrase, build on and challenge a partner’s ideas, and synthesize conversation points. We need to teach the protocols of civil discussion and debate. At my high school, we agreed to a set of Ground Rules for Discussions, common sense rules for both listening and speaking in a group. There are lots of resources to help teachers establish a good environment for academic conversations. For example, you can use sentence starters, to help students with the academic language of discussion and debate. Or you may choose to use structured conversational activities, described on the Facing History website, like Give One Get OneThink Pair Share, or Jigsaw

Island Choices and Shipwrecked

The first week in my Economics class students do an activity I designed called Island Choices. The set-up is the following, "Imagine you were stranded on an island after a shipwreck. You are not sure what raw materials are available on the island, but you can only take 10 of the 20 items from the ship onto land to help you survive. Work with your partners and decide which 10 to take.”  Not only does this activity help students learn basic economic concepts of scarcity, land, labor, and capital, it is also to get kids talking, grappling with economic decision making. The discussion prompt says,” Discuss your survival strategy with your partners. Below briefly explain how you are going to combine these items to survive, and why you chose not to take certain items. Be prepared to discuss your choices with the class.” I have designed similar first week activities for my other classes. In my World Studies class, for example, the Shipwrecked Activity involves students choosing a leader, making laws, and creating consequences for infractions on their desert island. I want to get my students talking early and often.

A History Mystery: What happened to the buffalo?

One way to get students talking is to put them into teams and give them a history mystery to solve. That’s the idea behind the lesson I designed called, What happened to the buffalo? I posed the mystery in the student handout, "In 1800 more than 60 million buffalo roamed the plains of the American West. In 1894, there was believed to be only 25 remaining buffalo. What happened to the buffalo?” I stressed the rules for good discussion in the first few slides of the Return of the American Buffalo slideshow. They are dubbed the 4 L’s: 1) Look at your teammate’s eyes  2) Lean toward your teammates 3) Lower your voice 4) Listen attentively. Once I’ve established the groundwork for productive team discussion, I handout 8 sources related to the near extinction of the buffalo in the 19th century. Students must work as a team, discussing and finding evidence in the the visual and text sources. In addition, to writing a sentence for each piece of evidence, they are asked to write a paragraph, providing supporting details for the following topic sentence, “ In less than a century the American buffalo almost became extinct.” I have found that having the students write before a classwide discussion means that a lot more students will participate. In addition, the research aspect of this activity insured an informed discussion with students citing evidence, something we should regularly shoot for in our classroom conversations. 

 Numbered Heads Together

I am guessing like me you've had good class debates or discussions with a handful of students leading the charge. However, in my experience ensuring equitable participation, with lots of students engaged in academic conversations is the real challenge. Let me share a few ideas that have worked in my classroom. One I like and have used often is cooperative learning strategy called Numbered Heads Together. Students are put into groups of four with each student receiving a number one through four. The teacher poses a question for discussion. After the team grapples with the issue, the teacher randomly calls a number.  Students with that number from each group are responsible for sharing the group’s ideas with the class.  I used Numbered Heads Together when we were learning about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in my economics class. GDP is not always the most exciting topic, so I livened things up by choosing the debate about whether this important macroeconomic statistic really captures the well-being of a nation. In the Happiness and GDP activity I posed several questions for discussion: Are people living in high per capita GDP countries happier than those in poor countries? How important is economic growth and income to the well-being of a nation, or are other non-economic factors such as family, community, religion, and the environment more important in human happiness. To randomly pick students in a group I created a random number picker, with the random name picker tool developed by classtools.net. You can choose to eliminate one of the four numbers each time they are chosen and have reported. If you do this and you have four questions, you will hear from every student in the class during the period. Or you can choose to keep all the kids on their toes by keeping all the four numbers as options during the class wide discussion.  Your call. 

Diamond Ranking Activity

Another strategy I regularly employ is the Diamond Ranking Activity Template posted by Teachit from the UK in 2006. This simple template is an excellent way to get all students talking and listening to each other. It can be used for many different types of topics and subject areas. For example, in 2016 during the election season, I asked my Government students to rank Presidential priorities.  Working with a partner, students were given eight big national issues and to decide which were the most important. The purpose of the exercise was to get students discussing what they felt were the most crucial issues for the country and the President to tackle. In preparation I used the diamond ranking template to create  a Presidential Priorities sheet, creating one set of Presidential Priorities set for every two students. Each set had to be cut out with scissors. Next, I designed a Presidential Priorities student handout.  Each pair of students discussed argued for what they felt should be the top priority for a future President and why. Then partners moved to the second priority, the third, until they have filled in their diamond in rank order. I also asked students to write before the whole class discussion. The Diamond Ranking Activity, with kids in pairs, is a great way to way to get student talking and arguing.  By the time, we moved to the whole class discussion, everyone had a lot to say about Presidential priorities in an election year. 

Silent Conversations

Some of the most powerful conversations I had each year with my students were silent ones. I designed the silent conversation lessons for the The Day of Silence, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The Day of Silence is a "student-led national event that brings attention to anti-LGBT name calling." Logan’s Gay-Straight Alliance held this activity in April, and many of my students participated by staying silent during the school day. I did too, but I felt it was a good time to have a discussion, albeit a silent one. 

The first silent conversations had a simple format. Students sat silently with a partner, between them was one piece of paper. I projected questions to the class: “Do you think people’s sexual orientation is fixed at birth or you think people make a choice later in life?” Pairs of students wrote their responses, passing their paper back and forth.”Do you share your parent’s views on homosexuality or do you have a different point of view than your parents?” More writing. “Why do people put down something or someone by saying, “That’s so gay?” Still silent,  I opened up a classwide discussion with the following prompt: “Let’s try a class discussion. Write a topic or question on the board and let others respond.” Several brave students came forward, white board markers in hand. The class quietly read their comments. In response, other students volunteered to write a question or share more views in front of the class. By the end of the class, the board was full with thoughtful comments. I was moved with how seriously and respectful all students took this activity. 

In successive Aprils I’d change the silent conversation questions, depending on the course, students, and issues in the news. In US Government one year we had a silent conversation on the fight for marriage equality. In this silent conversation I identified an article for students to respond to. Another year we had a silent conversation over the California Legislature’s bill to include gays and lesbians in school curriculum. I projected questions to the class with a Day of Silence slideshow: "Should gay and lesbian Americans be included in the curriculum?"  "Have any of your classes made references to contributions made by bisexuals, gays, lesbians and transsexual (LGBT) individuals?"  "Do you think that including discussions of LGBT issues in the curriculum will serve as an antidote to bullying in schools of gay youth? Why or why not?" 

I learned conversations don’t always have to include speaking. In fact, some of the best discussions I've witnessed between students were silent ones. 

Discussing the Big Questions

I think it is important for social studies teachers to get kids talking about the big, overarching, questions at the heart of our courses. Should the US have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan?  Is violence ever justified in the fight for social justice? What is the responsibility of citizens and nations during a genocide? In my US History class, for example, I designed an activity called, When should the US go to war? I introduced the discussion activity in the following manner, “We have studied World War 1, World 2, and now the Korea and Vietnam Wars. Most recently the US sent troops to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each generation of Americans has to answer a difficult question: When should the US go to war?” Students had to agree or disagree with a list of eight statements, each a reason or rationale for war. I also asked students to, “write a paragraph, explaining when the US should go to war and when it should stay out of wars. Or if you think the US should never go to war under any circumstances, explain your thinking.” After the paragraph writing, students discussed their ideas with a partner, and then finally we had a class wide discussion. Initially, I used a random name picker to call on students. However, after we had heard from many students I let the discussion develop by asking for raised hands. Good discussions generate enthusiasm and healthy debate. I think there is a time to let them flow, especially when lots of students are involved. There were students on all sides of the issue, with kids mustering their arguments and evidence. 

Facilitating whole class discussion is an art. First and foremost, we must listen carefully to our students, asking for further clarification or following up with a probing question. Where there is disagreement, we should organize the debate without entering it ourselves.  And we should ask our students to provide evidence and reasoning for their positions, helping them to develop their thinking. At least that is how my parents did it at our kitchen table with their passionate and opinionated sixteen-year-old son. I am in their debt.

Discussion Lessons

Discussion Lesson Economics - Island Choices

Discussion Lesson Government - Shipwrecked

A History Mystery: What happened to the buffalo?

Numbered Heads Together Economics Activity Lesson - Happiness and GDP

  • Happiness and GDP activity  - Forrest handout pdf
  • “Numbered Heads Together Cooperative Learning Strategy: (Grades K-12).” TeacherVision, 8 Feb. 2007, www.teachervision.com/numbered-heads-together-cooperative-learning-strategy.
  • Tarr, Russel. “Random Name Picker.” Fakebook, www.classtools.net/random-name-picker/.

Diamond Ranking Discussion Activity US Government - Presidential Priorities 

A Silent Conversation

Discussion Resources

US History Discussion - When Should the US Go to War?

© Dave Forrest- 2018