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March 16, 2021

Teaching For Civic Engagement: Academic Discussion

Editor’s note: The links in this blog will download the materials Mr. Colley is referring to in the text; the first a Powerpoint file, the next two are Word docs.

See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action

One of the first skills I focus on in my classroom is academic discussion.

I believe identifying, studying, and building academic discussion skills is a vital first step toward building community in the classroom and laying the groundwork for powerful action projects later in the year. In order for students to work with each other and the larger community, they have to be comfortable sharing their ideas and, most importantly, building new knowledge together. The lesson outlined in this post focuses on introducing discussion skills and takes about one class period. I practice academic discussion multiple times each unit.

A Framework For Academic Discussion

I begin by asking my students what they think makes for an effective conversation. They usually name things like “one mic” and everyone participating. These are key ideas on which to elaborate that highlight how a discussion is one way we can show and give respect to each other. I also emphasize the importance of different perspectives and how each person, by virtue of their unique identities, has something to add to the discussion.

One of the reasons we come to school is to learn from each other. School is often set up as an individual activity and, by high school, my students have deeply internalized messages about individualism. After all, they get individual grades and are taught that the purpose of school is to go to college and get their own job. This approach to school is deeply divisive and undermines the larger approach to civic engagement that I’m trying to foster in my classroom. Therefore, I emphasize that an effective academic discussion is one in which everyone participates, participation is equitable, and the group builds new ideas and questions together. I stress that discussion should be a creative act. In other words, if you’re not walking away from the conversation with new questions, insights, or perspectives, something went wrong. Once students begin to see the discussion as a creative and generative act, they begin to be more excited about the process.

Strategies For Participation

Once I’ve set a framework for the discussion, we dig into specific strategies and ways to participate in an academic discussion. Some of the methods of participation are things they’re already doing in other parts of their lives, such as talking with their friends. However, some of the discussion strategies are more specific to an academic space, and it’s important to name and explain those differences.

While there are many different ways to verbally participate in a discussion, I identify five specific strategies for my students:

  1. Start An Idea
  2. Add-on / Agree
  3. Disagree
  4. Ask A Question
  5. Cite Evidence

Discussion Cards

I use discussion cards to help students gain familiarity with these strategies and to provide visual thinking aids for the discussion. There are a lot of different variations of these cards, and you can order them online or have your students make their own. If you decide student-generated cards are the way to go, colored index cards work best.

On one side of the card is an image to represent the discussion strategy, and on the reverse a variety of sentence starters. The sentence starters are especially helpful for ELL students, but I want to emphasize that they’re helpful for anyone who has ever had the feeling they know what they want to say, but they’re just not sure how to start the idea. By stating that anyone can and should be using the sentence starters, it helps to de-stigmatize the cards and help everyone to feel comfortable using them as a tool.

The goal of the discussion cards is to help make the conversation — which is abstract and difficult to follow for some students — into a concrete activity. The discussion cards can also be a useful participation monitoring strategy and can help students set goals for the conversation. Additionally, the cards can be used as a reflection tool at the end of a discussion.

Teaching Students To “Play All Their Cards” In An Academic Discussion

Next, we start practicing. I ask students to hold the cards like they would playing cards and to actually play the card in the center of the table as they make their contribution. This helps students track their participation and actually see the conversation take shape.

discussion cards

The goal is for every student to play every card. At first it’s a struggle for students to identify their participation strategy (“Am I asking a question here or disagreeing?”), but this critical thinking is crucial for students to become more aware of their participation habits and start to push themselves outside of their comfort zones.

Most students find they are fairly comfortable with one or two strategies, usually start an idea, disagree, and/or add-on. However, many students are left holding the question and evidence cards at the end of a conversation. This serves as a visual reminder that students need to challenge themselves to expand their participation next time.

We start with fun, high interest topics that students brainstorm (either/or topics work well) and I set the clock for 5-7 minutes. The cards can feel a bit restraining at first, but as the discussion questions and texts grow more complicated, the discussion cards provide a comforting point of entry to a complex discussion.

Assessing Academic Discussion

One thing that can be difficult when using discussion in an academic setting is assessment. When students are participating in small group discussions, it’s difficult for me to make it around to every group and really listen to what’s happening. In these situations, I don’t asses the actual conversation. I may grade students on their preparation or their reflections, but not the actual conversation. To assess the actual conversation, I choose either a fishbowl style or a whole class discussion. I prefer a fishbowl because the group is smaller and it provides an opportunity for the class to really listen to each other, since half of the students are on the outside and are not supposed to talk.

A Rubric As A Tool For Feedback

Over the years, my colleagues in the ninth grade English department at Oakland Tech have developed a rubric for assessing large group conversations. The rubric looks at participation, academic community, and argument and evidence.

I think it’s also important to note here the rubric itself was developed over the course of many academic discussions with my colleagues. Thanks to the support of my school and district, I’ve had increased time to collaborate with my colleagues and to practice together what we’re asking our students to do, namely talk with each other to build new ideas, and then consider the implications and applications of those ideas. Effective teaching, in my mind, must be supported by a larger culture of collaboration, both at the school and district level.

After each fishbowl conversation, I ask students to give each other feedback (they work in pairs, and when one partner is in the fishbowl, the other partner is listening and taking notes) and then I share my own feedback, using the rubric as a talking point. One other important note: I grade the fishbowl conversations as a group. I think it’s important for the students to understand they’re responsible to and for each other. Individual grading would severely undermine this process.

We practice various forms of discussion throughout the year. In my next post, I’ll talk about a strategy called a “structured academic controversy,” which also utilizes discussion skills. With more practice, students grow more comfortable and confident to express their ideas and to do so in a way that develops their own thinking and pushes the thinking of their classmates. This work is central to teaching for civic engagement because the work of civic engagement can’t be done alone. Being active in one’s community and society, by definition, means sharing ideas and working with others. To do this, students must practice talking about difficult ideas, such as racism and discrimination, and must do so across social divides. By building bridges and new ideas together, I believe academic discussion is a vital first step towards the larger action projects at the end of the year and the overall goal of teaching for civic engagement.

What do you do in your classroom to nurture academic discussion skills? How do you support your students when talking about difficult subjects? How do you think academic discussion skills can be leveraged to support civic engagement? Share your ideas in the comments below.


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