Posts Tagged ‘graded discussion’

CCO public domain image by Karolina Grabowska

So I’ve been thinking about my graded discussions for a long time. I have written about assigning jobs, about giving people partners to look out for, about smaller groups. All of this has really been about finding ways for students to engage meaningfully in discussion.

I have told students over and over, in as many ways as I can think to tell them, about the value of participating in discussions. First, it is a way to try out ideas. It is a chance to articulate an idea that you might want to use later and get some feedback on it before you commit it to paper. In addition, engaging in discussion is a chance to listen, to know classmates as thinkers who may think differently than you do. Finally, truly engaging in discussion is a chance to change. It is a chance to let the ideas of others change our ideas, to come into a conversation with one idea and leave with a different one. It is a chance to evolve and adapt.

Is this final potential of conversation to change us that is the most elusive in the classroom, in my opinion. Who is routinely aware of each idea she has at the beginning of class and who takes the time to carefully compare these beginning ideas to the ones she has as she heads out the door? Not me most days. However every once in awhile the stars and planets align just right and we have an aha moment on the most unlikely of days.

This happened in my class on April 13th. It was a Thursday (with Friday off); it was a beautiful day, and we were meeting last period. These things do not generally come together to create wonderful class periods. In preparation for our discussion, I had given the students the question for discussion in advance, and they were to think about that for homework. The topic was, of course, related to things we had been discussing over the course of reading of the novel (Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan).

As I mentioned, it was a beautiful day, so we went outside. We sat in the grass and students started talking. At one point a student asked, “do you think there is any storyline that was unnecessary for the book?” (The book has a number of storylines, and at times the students were annoyed by having to keep track of them.) This topic appealed to the other students, and many volunteered a storyline they would cut. However, for each storyline that was put on the chopping block, there was another voice arguing it was critical and needed to be saved.  This pattern continued as each storyline was proposed for removal and then rejected. At some point, a student said “Wait, I want to change my answer. I don’t think any of the stories can go. I think the book needs them all.”

And the earth split open, and there was beautiful music, and unicorns appeared.

I have to say this was one of the most exciting moments of these discussions for me. To have the students talk themselves through an idea, debate both sides of several options, and then have someone actually bring all the particulars together and clearly state I’m going to change my ideas based on what I’ve heard everyone say;  I think differently now?! This was exactly when I knew people were listening to each other and truly engaging in the kind of discussion that I want to have.

I tried not to jump up and down and do cartwheels right there. Since I was wearing a skirt, cartwheels were definitely out of the question. I did pause the conversation briefly to celebrate and to point out that this is why we have these focussed conversations. This is why we delve deeply into a particular idea over an extended period of time. We want to be sure that we have really exhausted our understanding and are confident with where we have landed.

The student who initially voiced her change of opinion is an excellent synthesizer in discussion. She was able not just to hear her classmates defend each story, but to understand that putting it all together meant something bigger. Not only do we have this very public moment of recognizing that we changed our minds based on discussion, based on engaging with other people and ideas, but most of the students also came away with a deeper appreciation for the book and its intentional structure. 

And then, the bell rang, and it was the weekend.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about graded discussions all school year. It’s been a success overall.

When I surveyed my first semester group about it, some of them did not like it, but for the most part they were positive. Plus, I think it’s more reasonable to say “today I’m grading your participation” rather than have it be a vague overall sense of participation for the semester.  This way, it’s about your participation in this event, which is legitimately hard for some students, but also legitimately assessable. It doesn’t become a grade that supposedly reflects your performance all week/month/semester, when I as the teacher have not been taking notes on that and am going to give an impressionistic grade that is not necessarily very objective.

So, back to the new semester. I have started my YA Literature class. This section is still small, but we are now at 14 students, 3 of whom were in my Truth and Fiction class last semester. We had our first graded discussion a week or so ago. As usual, I gave out the topic to be discussed in advance (although I do wonder about who is looking at the online assignment sheet), set up the room to be one big table, got my note page ready, and we started.

This group moved at a statelier pace, which allowed for a bigger variety of voices to be included right away. There weren’t really students who dominated. Two of the quieter students from last semester joined in more this time. I am wondering about this. Was the pace better for them? Did they like feeling like they knew the ropes? What should I learn from this?

In this discussion, there were three students who had not participated after 20 minutes or so. I was sitting next to one of them and had already nudged him a time or two with no luck. Once the conversation seemed to have pretty much played itself out, I asked if anyone who had not spoken up had anything to say. The other two quiet students added a brief something; my neighbor did not.

Some students want/need/expect that teacher response to their comments, and I got the sense that there were a few sitting around the table who were not sure what to make of this exercise. Therefore, at the end of the discussion, I gave some overall thoughts and reiterated my reasons for not participating. I reminded them that I wanted this to be a discussion that was not dominated by me and was not about responding to me. I also stressed that it was not that I was not interested, rather there were many times I would have loved to join in, but bit my tongue on purpose. I got the feeling that some students needed to hear this again. I saw several nods after I explained.

Again, I would say that for most students this was a successful experience. One of my returning students guided the discussion back to our stated topic when it wandered too far. I don’t think he would have done this had he not been familiar to the format. I appreciated it. I think it speaks to the fact that he internalized some of what I was pushing the students to do last semester. And, it was a great model for others of taking ownership of the level of discussion. Those who did not participate were not as ready as some of my previous quiet people in terms of having notes ready etc. I think with this group I will have to continue to remind them to look at the assignment sheet for the topic and to come prepared with some things to share.

Many of the topics for these discussions have been fairly big picture. One of my goals for this semester is to have these discussions be on more specific topics so that we can get to more detailed references to the text.

Onward and upward!


So, I’ve been thinking about graded class discussions and written multiple times about how I have been working this concept during the semester. My most recent twist was to have two smaller conversations to provide a space for the quieter students, which was a success. However, the ultimate goal is to have all the students participate in a single discussion. (The class is very small so there is time for all to participate.)

Since we are doing a little secret snowflake gift exchange at the moment, I thought about incorporating that into our discussion. In the past I gave each student an individual goal/job which was about what the individual student should do for him or herself to be successful. This time I gave students jobs that were for their classmates’ success. The idea was that as students did their jobs, they were giving gift to their classmates. Each student received a note with one of the following written on it:

  • Please invite _________ to participate in the discussion.
  • Please encourage __________ to give specific examples.
  • Please challenge ___________. (I gave this only to 1 student and chose the challenger very carefully.)
  • Please encourage ____________ to connect his or her ideas to those of other students.

Once again, the students stepped up. They asked others to participate. With a few absences, I didn’t hear anyone ask for examples, but I did hear students asking for their classmates to engage. These are things I usually do, but it’s so much better if the students ask take this responsibility. Also, the quiet people had a task to do to get them started talking. Great.

Of course, for some it was obvious who their “secret snowflake” was right away. However, I don’t think that the student who was “challenged” realized what was happening. It came off as very natural and created some actual back and forth where there was not agreement. This does happen at other times, but with different folks, and it is sometimes less graceful. And, because of who I assigned to be the challenger, the challenged could hear it, and the rest of the group took the lead from challenger and engaged in more of a debate. I just took notes and giggled to myself.



pixabay image

pixabay image

So, I’m continuing to think about encouraging all voices in student discussions. I’ve been working very consciously on student only discussions. I’ve written about my initial strategy and my revisions.

With round 1, I was working on building the stamina, community, and capacity for student led discussion where I do not participate at all until the very end where I wrap it up just so that we don’t end with the very teen “um, so , yeah.” In round 2, the goal was to go beyond sharing and to add more interaction, building off each other’s ideas, and overall depth to the discussion. In many ways both of these were successful. However, I still had a handful of students who were not participating as much as I, and they, would like. This brings me to round 3.

For round 3, I had two discussions. Same topic, different students.

In one group were all the big talkers. No need to encourage this group to participate. My specific directions to them were to ground their thoughts in the text and to balance their big picture thinking with specifics. They did exactly as I asked. It was so hard not to join in the conversation. I wanted to participate with these colleagues so badly. A time or two I asked a clarifying question. Then, having broken my silence, I tried joining in a bit. Mistake. Even though these are confident participants and I am not a domineering teacher, I could feel a difference in the conversation. I will just have to bite my tongue. If my goal is for students to lead, I have to keep out all together. There are other times that are for me to participate.

In group two were the quieter students. Between absences and a few students who had work that needed finishing, it was a very small group, and I could see the relief on a few faces when they saw the group. What a difference. One student who has come to the previous discussions with notes at the ready yet has had a really hard time getting in the conversation, jumped in right away. He began the discussion with a specific reference to the text and got us going in a good direction. Another student who is often distracted had tons to say, responded to classmates, agreeing, disagreeing, 100% engaged, which represents massive improvement. A third quieter person also had a lot to add. Looking around as the students talked (I learned my lesson with the first group and did not join in), I could see an obvious change in their body language. These students now sat, leaned in, looked comfortable in the ways that the more talkative students do in a big or small group. If an observer did not know that these students represented many who are not usually major contributors, he or she would be surprised to learn that fact. After this second in-depth, vibrant conversation, I commented on what a good job they were doing and asked if this felt better. Smiles and nods all around. (They really are just big 5th graders who want to do a good job.)

Obviously, the quieter students have to be able to participate in a bigger setting, and they can and do. At the same time, I believe that as the teacher who is planning learning experiences, it is my job to scaffold activities that support students in growing their skills across a variety of areas. So, if I have a small cohort who needs to build participation skills, I need to meet them where they are to move them forward. For my quieter students, a smaller group is a good starting place.



So, I’ve been thinking about my graded student discussions. After our first discussion and reflection, I planned a second discussion and tweaked the format a bit.

If you will recall, in the first discussion I gave the topic to be discussed the night before, set up the big table, made a chart to take notes, and did not engage in the conversation.

This time, I thought about each student and what he or she needed to work on for a next step. I created 5 roles for this second time around.

  • Major participant: please come ready to be a major voice in the discussion. This does not mean that you have to have “the right answers.” It means you have some ideas to throw out there, some passages or examples to share, even some questions you think should be explored. Come ready to say a lot.
  • Restate and Extend: your job in the discussion will be to build off of the ideas of others. Anytime you speak you must first restate (briefly) what another person has said and extend that idea. In addition, your goal is to have a slightly different opinion at the end of the discussion than you had at the beginning.
  • Connector: your job is to listen and hear the ideas that either go together or are opposing viewpoints. When you notice this, you should share this connection and ask if your connection is something the group can agree on or if the difference you have noticed is significant, etc. You are looking for the big ideas and the building blocks to get there.
  • Inviter: your job is to listen for what is not being left out. Is there a part of the book that is being overlooked? Is all the conversation around one idea? If so, please invite the group to change course, or look in a new direction. Please come with some ideas that are a bit out of the box that you can throw out there when necessary.

I assigned ‘major participant’ to students who did not join in enough last time, pretty obvious. The restate and extend folks were people who had a lot to say, but tended to say their idea and leave the discussion. The goal for these students was to force them to say what others said, thus forcing them to engage in more of a discussion rather than serial monologues. The connectors were ready to see the bigger picture and needed the challenge. In some ways they were leader voice in that when I lead the conversation, I point out the similarities and intersections between and among ideas. The inviter was a wildcard. There was only one person assigned to this job. This student made some really interesting connections last time, so I thought I would give this part of the traditional teacher role to this student.

The students did a good job nodding to their particular roles, some more so than others. Again, it was a great discussion. I wrapped it up with a few summary statements after about 25 or so minutes when it seemed the topic was pretty well played out. This time I kept track of participation and “job completion”. Here’s what my notes look like.


Conversation 2 notes

Again, I asked the students to reflect on their performance. Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • Talked a lot more this time and went off on other points.
    • My take :good improvement a student who contributed single, independent ideas last time.
  • I wasn’t as stubborn this time and I think I added more even thought I spoke a little less.
    • My take: VICTORY!
  • It was harder to be a connector, but I did my best.
    • My take: yes, connecting different and potentially divergent ideas is harder, and this student is ready to do that. I appreciate the struggle and recognition of the work it takes.
  • I think I was able to invite new ideas and move the conversation along well.
    • My take: Very true. This student did a great job brining up related ideas that needed a champion.
  • Brought ideas to the discussion, just had trouble with all the other participants trying to speak at the same time.
    • My take: yup, it’s hard for those who are quiet. I noted that this student came ready with notes and pages for reference.
  • I think that I did a lot better this time…and I respected peoples’ opinions.
    • My take: this is a big deal for this student to respect the opinions of others.

Once again, a big success. These are lively discussions that let us talk about big ideas, but at the same time use textual support. Because I do not participate, there is no looking to me to approve comments; students must take on that role. And, because I am not trying to keep conversation going, connect ideas, write on the board, etc, etc, I love just getting to sit back and listen and take notes, but I also get to watch body language, attention, group dynamic. Not only to I learn a lot by watching, but it takes me down off whatever stage I may or may not be on. (I’m really not a fan of being sage on the stage anyway, but sometimes just by being the one standing up, that’s what happens.)

I think they are proud of themselves. They should be.

We have another conversation planned for next week on Logicomix.

So, I’ve been thinking about participation and how to teach and evaluate it. This has been a topic of discussion among the English teachers in Upper School as well. We all agree we want students to participate. Some of us agree on the desire to give some points/grades for this. Fewer of us agree on how to asses or determine the points or grades.

I am of the opinion that if I am going to grade something I need to have taught it and made it clear what the expectations are for good work in that area. I knocked around a couple of ideas, even got documents ready with rationale etc. and then went another direction. Here’s what I did.

Set up:

  • students were given the following homework assignment:
    • Read p110-136 (Slaughterhouse-Five)
    • Reply to a classmate’s comment on Ch 4 forum (on our online class page on Moodle)
    • Be prepared to be an active participant in a discussion where the question is: We learn in the first part of ch 5 that Billy voluntarily entered the hospital to try to recover from the war. “They had both (Rosewater and Billy) found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war…So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.” Given the evidence, how successful has Billy been in this task? Come with details ready to support your thoughts.
      • Using this rubric, you will evaluate your participation in the discussion, as will I. It will count for a quiz grade.
  • When class started I had us all sitting around a number of big tables and made a diagram of who was sitting where. 
  • I told the students I was not there to answer questions or to say yes or no to statements. My only job was to record or maybe ask more questions. I shared that I would record comments (I) and references to the text (T). My goal was 20 minutes. (Note: I based this format on my recollection of the Junior Great Books discussion format that I used many, many years ago.)

Discussion starts:

  • A student reread the prompt and someone began.
  • I recorded comments as described above (and added a Y symbol for times students indicated agreement, but not much else and C for connection to another text!)
  • Initially conversation was stilted and the kids called on each other to “take turns”. That stopped after some encouragement from me, and conversation became more free-flowing. I did not enter the discussion at all until probably 15-20 minutes in, maybe more. I then did as I said I would and asked some more questions that would push some ideas that others had begun. Conversation continued in full force for 26 minutes, at which point I decided we had talked this idea out.
  • I recorded the conversation, but don’t know how well that went and have not listened yet.

Student Self-Reflection:

  • Post conversation, students filled out this rubric on their participation and turned it in. We then did a few other quick things.
    • Note–one student commented he felt prepared and hopes we do this again. Another was very honest about her lack of comments and explained her reasoning. A third believed he should be rewarded for not wavering at all from the stated topic.
  • I had the next period free and responded on the bottom of each self-evaluation with a few sentences and a grade out of 20 points. For those who did not participate enough or barely enough, I asked if there was anything I could do to encourage/support more commenting. I returned the rubrics with my comments the next day in class.

Here is the picture of my discussion notes.

Conversation notes

Conversation notes


This discussion took place 6th period on Thursday of our first full week of school, after back to school night. The students clearly came in ready, for the most part, and did a great job, again for the most part. Good energy and momentum in class. 

Now I am thinking about our next discussion. I think I will set some individual goals with students. For some, the goal will simply be to contribute more. For others, I would like them to focus on connecting ideas, doing what I often do in other discussion. A few others I plan to ask to think about being influenced by others, letting themselves hear new ideas and be altered by them. These couple of students have clear ideas, but tend to come in feeling strongly, share their ideas strongly, repeat their ideas again, and then leave thinking the same thing. While there are times that it is ok to hold firmly to ideas, I believe a few of my students need a little encouragement in allowing themselves to bend. (This will be a bit tricky to say tactfully.)

What else should I consider? What recommendations do you have for me?