Class Discussions That Run Themselves

What I Was Thinking…

Much of my classroom instruction revolves around the fifteen cognitive strategies Carol Booth Olson describes in her book The Reading Writing Connection If you have not yet heard of Olson’s strategies, they name and explain processes strong readers and writers undergo as they build understanding. For specific details about cognitive strategies, click here or here.

This year, as students read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, they wrote responses to specific passages using the various cognitive strategies, labeling each response with the strategy as they went. That was all fine and good. However, I was left searching for a way for students to build on each other’s responses. They had great ideas. How could I encourage them to learn from each other? Olson’s strategies are meant to promote discussion, but how?

In principle, I’ve always loved the idea of class discussions, but in reality, I’ve found them challenging to pull off. In many class discussions, the teacher thinks of a question no one cares about (yes, I’m as guilty as anyone) and the same few students raise their hands. Remember that scene with the annoyingly over-eager student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the film Election? She sits front and center and raises her hand in an insistent and alarming matter after every teacher question. The rest of the class slumps in their chairs and waits for her to answer.

Teaching students how to respond with cognitive strategies and then how to respond to each other may help us avoid that scenario.

What I Tried…

Keep in mind my students were already familiar with the cognitive strategies and had been using them since the second week of school. They also had a “toolkit”—a booklet outlining what each strategy does and how to use it while reading or writing. This lesson is not meant to teach cognitive strategies but to use them as a springboard for discussion.

Step One: Set Norms

Academic Discussion Norms

Step Two: Go Over the Procedure

Academic Discussion Procedure

Step Three: Respond as a Class

On this particular day, we reread a passage from the beginning of The Outsiders, the part where Ponyboy describes the differences between Socs and greasers:

We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder, too. Not like the Socs, who jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks, and get editorials in the paper for being a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next. Greasers are almost like hoods; we steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while. I don’t mean I do things like that. Darry would kill me if I got into trouble with the police. Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck, the three of us get to stay together only as long as we behave. So Soda and I stay out of trouble as much as we can, and we’re careful not to get caught when we can’t. I only mean that most greasers do things like that, just like we wear our hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts, or leave our shirttails out and wear leather jackets and tennis shoes or boots. I’m not saying that either Socs orgreasers are better; that’s just the way things are (Hinton 4).

We stopped there and I modeled my favorite strategy: Making Connections. This strategy involves thinking about how you personally relate to the text, what it reminds you of, or what it makes you think about. Thinking aloud, I wrote—

Example of Making Connections Cognitive Strategy

I invited students to use the part sentence starter highlighted in yellow to write their own connections. A few students hesitated, saying they did not relate the passage at all. I advised these students to either—

  1. Think of another book or movie or TV show where two groups get along. Write, “This reminds me of a book I read / TV show I watched where…”
  2. Or, explain why you do not relate to this part. Write, “I do not relate to this part of the book because…”

I don’t love the second option because most good readers should find a way to relate to a key passage. However, I noticed when students are forced to explain why they don’t relate, they end up explaining why they do. It’s funny how that happens.

Step Three: Add to the Discussion Like a Scholar

Start with a slow, thoughtful whole-class discussion. Be prepared to use extended wait time. This is different than a regular class discussion because students will most likely be reading statements not answering questions. They key is to give them ways to respond to each other. I used the following sentence frames to get them started:


I began the discussion by telling students I would re-read my “Making Connections” response. This time I wanted them to think of a way to respond using one of the sentence frames.

Getting the first round of discussion going always makes me a bit nervous. I never know what to expect. This time, I read my response and asked students to think quietly for 30 seconds. Then, I invited students to raise their hands to add to the discussion—volunteers only for the first round.

To my surprise, many students had something to say either to me or to each other once they heard different points of view. The discussion went on for at least 10 minutes and could have gone on longer but, of course, the bell was about to ring. I did very little besides facilitating who would respond next. In fact, after a couple of students added to the discussion, I asked them to choose who would respond next. Here’s the kicker: a few students stayed because they wanted to keep discussing the passage. Don’t you love when that happens?

Next Steps

After students understand the process, they can move to small-group discussions. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet, but what I’d like to do is assign group members different cognitive strategies for the same passage (see below).

Read and Write a Close Reading Response

I think this would help students understand how different strategies can deepen understanding, even with the same text. It might break students out of the rut of waiting for the teacher to pick the strategy instead of choosing the one that will work best for them.

One drawback to this kind of discussion is that teaching the fifteen cognitive strategies takes a lot of time. The goal is for students to be able to name the strategy (declarative knowledge) and to know when (conditional knowledge) and how (procedural knowledge) to use it. The best case scenario would be for students to work with these strategies over a range of years, possibly from as low as fourth grade up to twelfth.

The good news is the cognitive strategies work for all levels and kinds of learners because they adjust to the skills and abilities of the student. No student has ever told me the cognitive strategies are too easy, just as no one has ever complained they were too difficult. They take time to teach, but for my students, it is well worth the effort.

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