Let me tell you something, I used to be stumped when it came to getting students to talk during discussions. I would marvel at online teachers who seemed to have mastered student-led discussions and the gradual release of responsibility.
But I couldn’t do it myself.
I would give them questions I though were interesting, but just didn’t resonate with them. Which was exactly what the problem was. I was approaching discussions from the perspective of a teacher, and not a student. I understood that students liked a text or novel, but they weren’t exactly interested in it for the same reasons I was. Which is when I started putting the ball in their court.
Student-led discussions are the unicorns of teaching and the end goal of gradual release of responsibility (where teachers start with leading in teaching, and then slowly responsibility for teaching and learning the material shifts to students). We all want students to be leading the charge in discussions so we can put our feet up and finally drink that coffee that started out hot but is now ice cold. We need students to be engaging with material in a way that makes their learning visible and absolutely shows what a kick-ass teacher we are. But how do you get there?
It feels like we choose a text that we think is engaging, the students are right there interacting with the material, but by the time it gets to discussion, there are crickets chirping.
So how do you actually get students talking?
Have them make the questions.
You can use question stems, set the parameters, and then have students discuss what they want to. Ultimately, things like bloom’s taxonomy can be your best friend when it comes to student-led discussions. Teachers can easily grab question stems online, or grab my curated list of standards-aligned question stems here, and have students create the question they are interested in.
Why does this work?
Students want to talk. They just don’t want to talk with an adult at the helm.
Here’s a good example. My students were having an end-of-act discussion for Romeo and Juliet. I was totally into reading between the lines and trying to highlight all the funny jokes they were missing. But my students were absolutely stuck on if Juliet’s parents were right to have told her off the way they did. What ensued was such a heady conversation on how parents should talk to parents, what the word anemic meant and why it was an insult, cultural norms in Shakespeare‘s time versus our current ideas of what a parent-child relationship should look like.
My students wanted to sit there and vent about what their own families looked like versus Shakespeare’s portrayal of a familial disagreement.
And I couldn’t have been prouder of them.
And here’s my disclaimer. They weren’t a magnet class or honors or a gifted class. They are my students in regular old English who were hitting on such nuanced reads of the play that even my principal was impressed when she walked through for an observation.
Quick Ideas for Student-Led Discussions
1) Use JamBoards
In my class, students come up with their question stems and then I have them create a sticky in a Jamboard and post their questions. I display the questions to the class so that they see exemplars as they compose their questions, and also so that no question repeats. This creates a good variety and sets the stage for the second step.
2) students pick a question and respond on a Google Doc
Depending on the class, I have students choose 1-2 questions and then respond to it in a Google Doc. This is what I usually grade. I let students know that they need to follow the C-E-R framework and write in complete sentences. I also emphasize that while they may be responding to a discussion question, I absolutely want them to answer it formally when writing in the doc just so that they can practice academic writing and argumentation.
3) Students Discuss in a small group
The stakes are so much lower in a small group. In a virtual setting this may look like students responding in a chat box or under comment nests in a Google Classroom stream. In person, this looks like students sitting near each other and talking about a question that interests them. I usually don’t have to redirect people too much, because like I mentioned, students want to talk about things that matter to them.
4) Students Discuss in a whole class
Whole class discussions can be where we encounter the most hiccups. But I show students my Google Sheets where I have their names with check boxes to track how many times they have spoken. In this way, students know they must contribute in order to succeed. And for me, if I see they didn’t get to contribute, I can assess their communication privately.
5) Students fill out a 3-2-1 Closure Google Form
Like all good teachers, I want to make sure that my students have walked away having learned something or reflected on something. So I have them fill out a simple 3-2-1 closure form through Google. This makes it so I am not dealing with a mess of papers (cause yuck, I lose papers too easily and hate the clutter) and so that I can easily see who was really engaging and who was posturing.
It’s a Game Changer
It was such a game changer when I started having students make questions with question stems. I have them create them on a sticky in jamboard, and I display it as they make them so they see exemplars from peers.
Our class discussions are so much more fun and vibrant now that I have let students lead our discussions.
Once you start using this method, I guarantee you will not regret it.