About Discourse: Part 2

In this post, I’m going to continue thinking about discourse.  You can find part 1 here.  I appreciate the comments and support from the Twitter community.  I think I have also changed the settings on the posts so that you can comment without “logging in”, but please let me know if you have not found that to be the case.  I really do want this to be a dialogue (whether here or on Twitter), because I know everyone has ideas and different experiences to share.


Prompt 2:  What are your strategies for focusing whole class discussions away from personal critique and towards critical analysis of explanatory ideas?

In the photo above, you can see students starting to move into a circle, with whiteboards posted (not all are there yet – ha!). This can be uncomfortable for students because their work is on display.  If I’m not careful, a discussion can quickly move from something productive into something demeaning as students internalize critiques in a personal way.  I want my room to be a safe space for students, and for all to feel comfortable with voicing their (possibly) imperfect ideas.

First, I try to plan for discourse around labs, tasks (like Brian Frank’s card sorts)*, or ideas where there is not necessarily going to be “one automatic right answer.”  My students’ first board meeting experience occurs on the first day of school with the “Exploding Can Demo.”  I ask students to imagine that they are on The Magic School Bus with Ms. Frizzle and they should draw particle diagrams for what they would see inside of the can.  This is the first day of school, so of course, none of them have anything close to the “right answer” and they know that.  It’s much easier to have a non-judgemental discussion when you know that everyone else is in the same boat.

One strategy I use for discussions like this, I adapted from The Math Forum is “Notice, Wonder.”  After students get into a circle, I will ask them for 2 minutes of complete silence.  While they are silent, they should be looking at the whiteboards around the circle, keeping in mind the prompts “I notice…”, “I wonder…”, “What is similar is…”, “What is different is…”, though I do tell them they are not limited to those prompts specifically.  After 2 minutes of silence, I let them begin discussing with each other.  There’s always something that has piqued student interest.  At first, they will hesitate, and then direct their question/comment to me.  I have to be very intentional about directing it back to the class as I don’t want to be seen as “the keeper of all knowledge.”  After a few times of doing this, they get the idea and start talking to each other.

But what about when students are presenting problems and there are specific right answers?  I don’t get into this kind of whiteboard meeting until at least a month into the school year – after we have built up a classroom culture and there is some trust.  Even then, I find myself needing to remind students that we should not be making personal judgments, and also should not assume that others are making judgments against us (sometimes it feels that way, even if the intention wasn’t there).  Easier said than done though, right? Something I haven’t tried yet, but am thinking about trying is Kelly O’Shea’s Whiteboard Mistake Game.  I got to experience this for the first time in her “Designing for Discourse and Sensemaking” workshop.  What I like is that it normalizes making mistakes and talking about them.  It allows students to be picky about mistakes that were made, but it frees the presenting student from feeling “personally” attacked – they were SUPPOSED to make mistakes.  Now, no one knows (unless the presenting student specifies) if the mistake was made on purpose or not.

These are just a couple of strategies, but I know there are so many more out there.  So leave a comment or catch me on Twitter:  what are your strategies for keeping discussions away from personal critique?

*I actually first made a card sort because I saw Kelly using one in her class.   Check out her post too!  There will also be more card sorts posted as a result of her Designing for Discourse and Sensemaking workshop.  I’ll be posting a couple myself in the weeks to come – so watch for that!


Edit: July 19:
Brian Frank has been tweeting about whole class discussion tasks.  If I’ve done it correctly – the link should take you to one such thread, but I believe there are actually several.  Definitely check it out, because there are some great ideas there, and I have a lot to think about as I plan for my classes this fall.

2 thoughts on “About Discourse: Part 2

  1. Hi! I teach in IL and have been using the modeling curriculum for 5 yrs now (am only chem teacher in a small school). I am looking for someone to share their pacing calendar with me b/c I regret that I only get through Unit 8 ALL YEAR and I know I am supposed to get through Unit 8 in ONE SEMESTER. I don’t know how people do it. Sorry to assault your comment section with my request, but I could not find an e-mail for you on your blog. Thanks in advance for any advice.

    • Hi Robin!

      At my current school, I only get through Unit 8 as well – but that’s because I teach 9th graders and we only meet 3 xs a week for 65 minutes. When I was teaching in public school with a more “normal” schedule, I would get further – though not all the way to unit 8 in one semester. Unit 6 was usually my semester point – sometimes I’d finish at the end of 1st semester, sometimes I’d finish it at the beginning of 2nd semester, depending on how the fall went. Either way, I consistently got through unit 11 by the end of the year and sometimes unit 12. Generally, most modeling teachers I know are satisfied if they can get through unit 10 in a regular chemistry class.

      My g-mail is kluce397, so feel free to e-mail me and I can send you more details if you would like.

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