Planting Thought Seeds: Using Class Discussion to Support Students’ Short Answer Responses
As a high school American Literature teacher, Travlyn knew that her students needed to develop their discussion skills. Through collaborative inquiry with her colleagues, she not only deepened her understanding of what it means to engage in substantive discussions, but also made discoveries about her learners, her teaching practice, and herself. Her knowledge gained through inquiry had a direct, positive impact on her students’ ability to express their ideas through discussion and writing.
“I am a complete idiot,” I thought as I attempted my first experiment in my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry. “This is never going to work, and I am going to look stupid in front of my new colleagues.” Hired after the school year started, I was invited to join the Mills Teacher Scholars group at my school after my colleagues had already started their inquiries. Eager to make friends and worried that my teaching skills were rusty after a five-year hiatus, I took the plunge. In classic “me” move, I decided to use the inquiry process to take on the most challenging issue of my teaching with my most difficult class: Third Period, or as I thought of them, The Period of Doooooom. The goal? Improve my students’ class discussion skills.
So there I was, faced with an 11th-grade American Literature class filled with recently reclassified English Learners, most of whom had already decided to go to continuation school. Several students had 504 plans and some had IEPs. None read or wrote at a high school level, with the exception of one student. I was determined to do a better job of getting these students to have substantive conversations about the texts we were reading. I am a talker, so facilitating class discussion is tough for me as well, as I tend to feel convinced I know a lot more than my kids do. True story: this inquiry taught me otherwise.
As I began to watch videos and read articles, it seemed like the most effective class discussions had a high rate of participation. So at first, to gather data for my inquiry, I just counted the number of students who participated and tallied the number and types of their responses. I tracked group and individual responses and started awarding points for participating. However, after a few months of this counting strategy, my students’ responses were not any more substantive. Then a colleague in my inquiry group asked me a question:
What do you mean by substantive?
Dear reader, please add lightning bolts and fanfare in your heads, because it was a powerful moment that changed what happened for the rest of the year. When my colleagues had me drill down and ask myself to define what I really wanted from my students and come up with a plan to implement it, not only did our class discussions change, but I changed. Prior to this moment, I had equated substantive discussions with quantity, not quality, of responses. I realized that the discussions we were having lacked specifics, extension of ideas, and questioning because they were too far removed from the learning goals of the class. So I chose a specific class goal that the students and I had set based on where they felt the least confident: to learn how to answer short answer questions.
The New Plan
The new plan was for my students to use short answer questions as class discussion prompts. It seems obvious now, but it did not occur to me at first, that repeatedly practicing a class discussion with a clear purpose would help us reach our goals. When I think about the three focal students that I chose, it makes a lot of sense that this new strategy would work better. Aria refused to participate, Julius did not yet have the skills to participate, and Charles was a good student, but very introverted. Simply writing the short answer questions on the board as a discussion prompt helped Julius and Charles tremendously. Their anxiety about “having the right answer” seemed to dissipate because in the context of a class discussion, there was no longer a right or wrong answer.
However, as successful as this new strategy was for increasing conversation, the students still were not engaging with the question substantively. To that end, I came up with the rephrasing model. I sat with my clipboard at the front, asked the question on the board, then fielded the inevitable response from Lydia, whose hand was up before the question was even asked.
“May I rephrase that, Lydia?”
“Sure, Mrs. Langendorff!”
So, are you saying Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator?
What do you think, Julius, is he an unreliable narrator?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there something I can clarify for you?”
“Yeah. What does ‘unreliable’ mean?”
“Lydia, do you mind explaining what ‘unreliable’ means?”
“Julius, do you think Nick is an unreliable narrator?”
“I don’t know. It seems like he is telling the truth.”
“What do the rest of you think?”
Hands shot up, chaos and thinking ensued.
“Okay, okay. Let me get this straight, are you guys saying the answer to the question: Who is the most deceptive character in the Great Gatsby and why? is Nick Carraway, because the entire story is from his point of view, and he is biased against Tom and Daisy?”
“You forgot about Jay!!”
“Jeez Louise, you guys, do you have two answers?”
“Okay, just choose the answer you like best for your journals and make sure you use evidence from the text to support it. That is all I ask.”
Here is the deal: my students had been trained to talk to the teacher, not each other. So, I channeled their impulse to talk to me to get them to respond to each other’s ideas. In the example above, I was an integral part of the conversation, but over time, the students learned to ask the questions I was asking of them, and I became the classroom appendix — present but not necessary.
The most special part of this process is how the students’ questions and demands shaped it. I will never forget the day when I realized that my students needed support with formal conversation skills and needed some structures to help them along.
“Okay guys, you see how I was rephrasing what you said? Who wants to try it?”
By now (as you know), Lydia has already volunteered.
“Who wants to talk to Lydia?”
Charles raises his hand, “I want to, but I don’t know what to say!”
I walk to the board, write some sentence stems on it, and say, “Try one of these!” It was a really big breakthrough, because I just wrote down the phrases I was saying to them, but some kids needed to read them as well as listen to them. Charles reminded me that multiple modalities is key when teaching all students, but especially those who are classified as ELL and/or Special Education.
It took until March, but by slowly building up the students’ conversation skills and confidence, I was able to get them to more deeply explore ideas. By March they had practiced the following skills, which my inquiry colleagues had helped me define:
- actually participating
- responding directly to each other
- using rephrasing strategies to more clearly articulate ideas
As the year went on, I participated less and less in these discussions, merely logging who was talking, what they were saying, and how often.
The final step was getting it into their writing. I learned that to be truly substantive their oral responses had to lead to clear, thoughtful, written answers to the short answer prompts. So after each class discussion I had them write an answer to the discussion question in their journals. Once they knew the expectations and had the structured support, they went from writing one or two sentences to eight or ten.
Over the course of the school year, Third Period quickly became one of my favorites, because they taught me a lot about how to teach. Their questions about the processes I made up, the purpose, and even why I chose them to be part of my inquiry directed my actions and decisions. Aria taught me that some students are just not going to talk in class, but will talk up a storm in a small group. Charles reminded me that strategies that work for Special Education students often work well with other students too. Julius taught me that a good teacher is a listener, not a talker.
As of this writing, I have no idea how my students did on the short answer section of the state test, but I do know that my inquiry allowed me the space to be a learner, not just from my colleagues outside of the classroom, but the ones inside it as well.
Travlyn is an English teacher at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward. She taught for 13 years before leaving for a brief stint as a video game designer. However, the sirens’ call of teaching made her come back. She also has two grandchildren who are the light of her life. She was voted “Most Likely To Have An Opinion” in high school, and nothing has changed much.