After introducing my AP Lit students to literary analysis tools and critical theory, I teach a unit called “Identity and Culture” with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon at the center. In the past, I have turned this unit into a bit of a slog, as I want to discuss everything that happens. As a result, the discussions have tended to be teacher-led, and we never seemed to get through everything I wanted to talk about. You see the problem, don’t you? It was about me and not the students‘ needs. I can be especially guilty of this pedagogical crime when I’m teaching a book I really love—like Song of Solomon. This year, I decided to change my approach. Obviously, I needed to do something more student-centered.
I attended the Mosaic AP Slow Conference this summer, and in one session presented by Roy Smith and Brian Sztabnik, I learned how to create a digital notebook (see link; their materials are near the top of the page as of this writing). I replicated the notebook that Roy shared in the presentation using this free template at Slidesmania. The notebook allowed students to wrestle with the novel’s characters and themes and analyze the text deeply. We could pull back a bit on the class discussion because I was asking students to do more of the work of analysis on their own. The side benefit is that doing this analysis better prepared the students for the class discussions.
The second change to my approach involved the discussions themselves. I knew I didn’t want to lead full-class discussions each day. I decided to try different discussion techniques that included a mix of small group discussions in which all students could participate and larger group discussions that engaged the class as a whole. I tried each of the following strategies successfully in the unit.
TQE: Thoughts, Questions, Epiphanies
I learned about this technique through Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy blog. Marisa Thompson developed this discussion strategy in which students discuss their thoughts, questions, and epiphanies about a text in small groups for 15 minutes. Then they identify their top two TQEs and write them on the board. The student-generated TQEs become the basis for the full-class discussion that follows. I like this strategy because it engages students in both small group discussions and full-class discussions. It gives them a focus. In Gonzalez’s blog post, you can see the stems Thompson uses to help students generate topics for discussion. As students are working in small groups, I circulate and listen. I have also tried this strategy in my Social Justice course with great results.
Small Group Scene Studies
Because the notebooks the students used as they read the text included a section for scene studies, I decided I would ask students to do a mix of independent scene studies and group scene studies. The goal of a scene study is to analyze the events in a scene. What happens? On a deeper level, what does it mean? Do you notice any symbols? How does the scene connect to larger themes in the text? How do characters develop in the scene? Scene studies are great for those pivotal moments in a text, such as when a character has an epiphany or when a major event happens, and you want students to think about the details. We had done a scene study together as a class in which we compared and contrasted Robert Smith’s leap to Henry Porter’s standoff in the first chapter of the novel, so they had a model for the process. Sometimes I asked students to select a scene and do a scene study in their notebooks for homework, but on other occasions, I asked them to work in a small group to conduct a scene study. Groups then shared out their findings about a scene with the whole class. I could easily see this working as a “jigsaw” discussion, too. In that case, each group might analyze a different scene and the sharing would take on additional import as they taught their peers about the scene.
Also known as “converstations,” this strategy engages students in small group discussions about characters, scenes, events, themes… whatever you like! I teach AP Lit with a colleague, and she identified several quotes from one of the chapters and asked one or two questions about each quote. These quotes were posted in different areas around the room where students could write responses. Students start at one quote station and move through each station, commenting on the questions and adding to their peers’ comments as well. After rotating through each station as a group, students navigate to the quote that speaks to them the most, and they unpack that station’s commentary for the whole class. They don’t have to move as a group to identify the quote they want to unpack. This method incorporates some movement, so it’s a good way to get students on their feet and thinking. The danger is that some quotes may not attract as many students. I had that happen to one station, and I decided to unpack that station’s commentary. I also did not have the whiteboard space in the classroom where I teach (as my colleague did), so I used large sticky posters.
A twist on this strategy involves creating a slide deck with a slide for each student group where they can write their responses to each station. Each station is a different slide in the deck. The stations can have quotes, questions, or some mix of both. I also borrowed this idea from my AP Lit teaching colleague. It works especially well when you have a hybrid or Zoom class, and you want to engage students in group work.
Discussion protocols are also a great way to engage students in small group discussions. The School Reform Initiative has many discussion protocols that not only work well for professional meetings but can also be adapted for the classroom, including many text-based protocols. I tried two text-based protocols developed by SRI: Save the Last Word for ME and the Four “A”s Text Discussion. The only real changes I needed to make were adapting some of the timed portions to fit my 70-minute class periods and changing terms like “article” to “text.”
I used an adaptation of the Four “A”s Text Protocol that asks students to discuss a character’s “assumptions,” what they want to “agree with,” what they want to “argue” with, and what they want to “ask” the character. We used this protocol after we learned about Guitar’s involvement in the Seven Days, which helped the students go beneath the surface and beyond their first reaction to the Seven Days and think more critically about Guitar and his involvement in this organization. This protocol allowed students to explore the nuances and angles in the text.
We used the “Save the Last Word for ME” protocol after reading chapter 9, which rounds out First Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena’s characters and delves more deeply into their stories. This protocol is especially good for engaging every voice, as each participant must speak. Each participant shares a passage, and the other group members discuss the passage before circling back to the presenter, who then explains why they chose the passage. This protocol is also great for driving students into the text, as it is passage-based.
Notebook-led discussions might not be the best term for this strategy, but I called them notebook-led discussions because I asked students to share some detail from their notebooks as a frame for the discussion. Rather than generate questions I would ask them in a full-class discussion, asked them which scene they focused on for a scene study, and they shared what they captured in their notes. Other students added on as they generated questions or ideas about the scenes. This strategy also worked for focusing on characters. I might ask what details they captured about a character’s development in a reading. This strategy is a twist on the typical teacher-led discussion as it asks students to share the details from their notebooks that they want to focus on for discussion.
Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussion
I use Socratic Seminar discussion often but decided to try a Fishbowl Discussion after Part I of the novel to allow students to discuss the text in smaller groups, practice listening and note-taking skills, and analyze the text up until that point. Fishbowl Discussions divide the class into small groups. My class sizes are just right for dividing into two groups. The inner circle discusses the text, while the outer circle takes notes. The groups swap places and repeat the procedure. Students don’t like that those conversations can be repetitive and sometimes want to address a point that came up in the other group’s discussion, but there are ways you can mitigate these problems by allowing time to debrief or creating different questions for each group. My students generate their own questions for Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussions using the Question Formulation Technique from the Right Question Institute. I ask students to do a reflection that includes the following elements:
- A summary of the discussion
- Identify a comment made by a peer and explain why you responded to it (agree, disagree, made me think, etc.)
- Explain how the seminar contributed to your learning
- Connect the discussion to something else (a personal experience, learning in another class, another book, etc).
- Assess yourself and set goals for next time
I have been using this reflection template for years. I initially discovered it through Greece Central School District’s (New York) website for their ELA programs, but they have since taken down all of these resources. You can easily create a reflection template that works for you.
If you’ve tried discussion techniques that work well for you, please feel free to share in the comments.