Let ‘Em Talk: How to Facilitate Small Group Discussions

Image from Public Domain via Pixabay


You know what scares a lot of teachers? Letting students talk. We spend a lot of time shhhh-ing and waiting for students to stop talking so they can listen to us. The good news is that there is a way we can let students to talk and help them learn at the same time. It takes some practice but junior high kids can learn to have self-directed, academic small group discussions. They may even have some fun doing it.

There are two experiments going on in the following lesson:

  1. Students create their own “burning” questions about a work of literature.
  2. Students discuss the questions in small groups. They record the most important outcomes of their discussions for accountability.

Sample Lesson

Right now in my English 7 classes, students are in book groups. Each group is reading a book which follows some form of the Hero’s Journey. Basically, I give students an extensive list of Hero’s and Heroine’s Journey books. Each student forms a group with two or three students who chose the same book. This year students selected Divergent by Veronica Roth; The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien; Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern; Legend by Marie Lu, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

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We read William Steig’s Shrek as an example hero’s journey. To know more about the pattern, watch Matthew Winkler’s “What Makes a Hero?” video for TED-Ed. For a complete set of my class materials on the unit, click this link: http://goo.gl/Qs3zmw

I start with Shrek for two reasons. First, it is a great book. Second, it always helps to start with a children’s picture book if I’m teaching a new thinking routine or concept. In this case, I use Shrek as a jumping off point for academic discussions. It feels easy and safe for students to discuss a picture book. Everyone understands the story and everyone has something to say about it.

After reading the story, I go through the information on the following slide deck with students. We do a “practice academic discussion” as a class. I model what it sounds like for the questioner to facilitate discussion and how to know when to bring it to a close. Next, students try writing their own questions and moderating their own discussions. I circulate taking notes on my clipboard.  Most of the time all groups get full credit. There is something about the teacher walking around with a clipboard that helps students stay focused. And I have a solid record of what happened. Student groups also take responsibility for recording the outcomes of their discussion.

I think this lesson went fairly well in my classes last week. I sat in with at least four or five groups each class period and was impressed with what I heard. Here is a sample:

  • Why is Ender’s relationship with Valentine important? (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game)
  • Could cloning humans ever be done ethically? (Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion)
  • Why is El Patrón so evil? (Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion)
  • Is the war in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe like any wars or conflicts happening in the world right now?
  • Do the children in Battle School act like kids or do they act like adults? (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game)
  • What would have happened if Shay had died? Would Tally turn in the people of The Smoke? (Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies)

All questions were student created. I try not to evaluate them based on whether or not think the question is interesting. If the students want to talk about it, great. If they  support their ideas with textual evidence, even better. The most important thing is they are discussing what they read in the way that mirrors how real readers talk about books in the real world.

After a debrief, we’ll try again next week and I think it will go even smoother. One group member—from a group I didn’t have a chance to visit—said, “Can we do this every day?” Maybe they were off task, but I don’t think so. I think students like being empowered to direct their own learning. They like talking. And I hope it will spur them toward more inquiry and more reading.

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