“Class, it’s time to talk about the book we read. Who wants to go first?”
“Who is the central character in our plot?”
[More crickets. A cough in the background].
“I don’t want to call on someone, but I will!”
As winter break ends and you prepare to return to your classroom, you may find yourself imagining your upcoming reading discussions (at least we have). These important learning sessions can be so exciting: they give students the chance to really explore ideas about history, art, politics, and even perception. You might find yourself thinking… what could be better than an open forum for talking about a really great book or poem?
So why doesn’t reality always match up to our desires? Sure, you might have had a good reading discussion here and there, but you’re probably looking for more than simply hit or miss. You likely want EVERY reading discussion to be a knockout, slam dunk, all-the-way-to-the-finish-line lesson full of engagement.
(All right, we’re getting a little carried away with ourselves just thinking about the perfect discussion of great stories, articles, and poetry. But you get what we’re saying.)
Not all of these steps are easy, but each one promises to get those students talking. Let’s exchange those crickets for a symphony of voices.
Don’t go for easy books - While it might be tempting to choose books that offer an easy lesson or don’t court any controversial subjects, books that get adults talking are also the ones that will get your students talking. Works that challenge their views or have difficult subjects are perfect for stimulating thought and discussion. Novels like 1984 or short stories like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" are great examples of works that are accessible and present situations that deal with hard topics like privacy or social norms. Within limits, go for for works that have made society at large deliberate and disagree. You’ll find students who are passionate about these very same subjects in their own lives.
Break them up into small circles - For a seasoned teacher, addressing a room full of students is almost second nature. But for students, it’s often a completely new experience. Small circles of 4 or 5 students gives each participant the chance to speak to a group without feeling overwhelmed or on trial. It also ensures that students can team up with those they are most comfortable sharing their ideas with, even as they discover that sometimes their ideals differ greatly. Small circles allow for confidence and relationships to grow while our next steps keep them directed at the reading.
Give them more fitting roles - When you’ve broken students down into groups in the past, you've probably assigned them roles like the secretary or facilitator. Though these are good starting points, take it a step further and get creative. Assigning them roles like literary critic, anthropologist, devil’s advocate, movie producer, scientist, a grandmother, or even a character in the book itself is a novel way to excite them. They’ll be able to “play the part” in a way that is safe for them to challenge ideas and present different perspectives. You can even let students create their own roles that let them explore multiple perspectives within the group, instead of just serving a function to facilitate their time.
Convey your expectations - Instead of listing a bunch of rules (though it obviously can’t hurt to have a few basic ones), frame the discussion around what you expect to happen. The best starting place? You expect disagreement. You WANT disagreement. Wrestling with different perspectives, even passionately, is exactly what you want. But outline that the disagreement should be constructive, that everyone should have a chance to speak, and that sharing ideas leads to better understanding. Thoughts should be followed up with justification and arguments with reason. Remind them that reflecting on hard topics goes right along with good etiquette and respect.
Be a part of each group - How can you keep each group focused on the reading and not talking about Facebook comments (unless they’re relevant)? Walk around and participate in each circle. Ask and encourage open ended questions that focus on the why and how of the story or poem. Skip the quiz questions, and instead ask students what their initial thoughts or reactions to the work were. Or how the work applies to their own lives. Ask them to recall their favorite passages. Let them explain why they loved or hated the work. Challenge them to say what they would change if they had written it. Or what they would do if someone they knew acted like one of the characters. Be spontaneous, organic, and natural; be part of the reading group.
Start immersing them now - By creating your small circles, you’ve set the stage to transition and blend your reading discussion into a project-based experience. Nothing excites students more than the open-ended chance to show their creativity. At a point of your choosing, give your students the chance to brainstorm and begin a project related to the poem or story. Imagine your students passionately discussing how to accurately represent British schoolchildren when they reenact the ending of Lord of the Flies. Or picture them rewriting a zany nonsense poem of their own that could have been taken right out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland itself.
What will you say when they want to envision how a Brave New World might be merged with their favorite TV show?