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Daily Discussion Charts — Idea of the Week #30

RAMS English Blog

MASSACHUSETTS – April 1, 2012 -- Reading a novel isn’t as simple as it used to be. Do you have the class read the book in its entirety before discussion? Nancie Atwell is a proponent of this camp, but the only entire-class novel she assigns is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. What if the book is more challenging than that YA classic? Other teachers prefer a piecemeal approach, but worry about “over-teaching” the book via chapter-by-chapter lecture, analysis, vocabulary round-up, and “discussion” (quotes mine). In this case, were the novel Roberta Flack, it might serenade you with a round of “Killing Me Softly with His Words” in honor of your teaching style.

A happy medium is reciprocal learning. This is where each class begins with small groups helping each other to make meaning about the preceding night’s reading before taking it to the class as a whole. The advantages to this approach? For one, more students get involved when you start small before moving to whole-group discussions. Carefully-selected groups can also match stronger students with less confident ones, talkative with quieter, and comfortable with uncomfortable (those who need that inviting charisma from the open-hearted souls among our students).

Here is a Daily Discussion Chart to facilitate reciprocal learning. The top half (“What We Know and What’s Important” and “Questions We Have”) can be filled in by the students for homework as they read. Then, when they huddle in small groups to discuss the chapter the next day, new information can be added to these upper sections. Some teachers might prefer handing out a second, “group” copy of the daily discussion chart instead, in which case the one taken home is a rough draft. This is helpful if a lot changes take place from individual reading to small group discussion.

Another option? Teachers can hand out this simpler T-Chart for Book Readings for homework purposes and reserve the daily discussion chart for classroom use the next day. At the end of each day’s meeting, the two can be stapled together and placed in a pocket folder named after the book in question.

Moving through novels this way empowers students. With the chief cook and bottle washer (that’s us) relegated to the role of hovering mentors ready to answer questions and keep groups on topic, students do an amazing job on their own of answering questions and determining importance. What’s more, they tend to listen better in a reciprocal learning situation like this. Everyone is busy because everyone must record answers and clarifications made by their group. There is no single recorder because students will need this paperwork for their own folders dedicated to the novel-in-progress. Teachers may even permit open notes during the summative assessment, thus encouraging students to observe good habits in daily recordings.

Continuing down the chart, the middle is filled during discussion. Teachers may time the daily discussion and even project a stop-watch on the Smartboard or Mimio. Remember, you want enough time to do the chapter justice, but not so much time that student minds begin to wander. Also, always choose an odd time allotment: 9 minutes and 30 seconds is better than your garden-variety, heard-it-a-million-times ten minutes. Don’t be afraid to extend time if all the groups are fully engaged and making progress, too! I never blow the whistle when things are “humming” as they say of such serendipitous moments.

Announce when you are ready for the group to write its summary points in the bottom section. These will be verbally agreed upon and copied simultaneously by the group. In addition, these summary points will serve as discussion starters for upcoming whole-class engagement. No one can shrug shoulders or say “I don’t know,” because everyone is fresh off of a reciprocal learning experience and has written documents on hand to refer to.

For the post-small group phase, teachers may engage the class in many ways. Some teachers like the structure provided by a single method that is predictably used each day of the unit, while others prefer the variety different methods provide. Thus, you can have a whole-group discussion, select a single member from each group to go before the class for a “fishbowl” panel, or even conduct a mini-Socratic. You can jigsaw so that new groups are made up of members from the various initial groups or break out the academic conversation guides and ask that prompts be used as groups unite to argue over what’s important to the author’s various purposes in the chapter in question.

Yes, you can even use the daily discussion chart as a primer for short writing prompts or any multimedia activity focusing on that particular chapter. You can customize the exercise, too, by providing a “daily focus” if you wish. Maybe you want groups to hone in on symbol, mood, thematic developments. This focus can be thrown into the mix when assigning the chapter the night before or just before the daily meeting. “Each group is responsible for quoting two excerpts that show the author using symbols,” you might say. “You have limited time, so perhaps you want to divide the chapter pages within your group so each person can skim for symbols the author uses.” And so it goes.

The bottom line? Reciprocal learning is an approach that emphasizes student expertise and holds off teacher involvement until absolutely necessary. Students are more involved, more likely to read knowing their peers expect it of them, and more likely to enjoy the book as a whole because they treasure their moments together each day. So scrap the “bell ringers” or starter activities and watch your students enter the room and settle straight off into their groups, daily discussion charts in hands. If you feel it is advisable, have each group set discussion norms and consequences for non-readers on the first day. Or distribute your own norms.

The point is, daily discussion charts are as flexible as they are potent — and the more challenging the text, the more effective this strategy can be.

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