Roundtable Discussion - Turning Book Discussions Over to Students

How do teachers get students to talk about their reading in a meaningful way?
As a high school English teacher, I have often been reluctant to let students lead their own book discussions. When I have tried book discussions in the past, students focused on the literal meanings of their books, such as the basic recall of the plot; however, I wanted them to use critical thinking, making inferences and relevant connections with their reading.

Consequently, over the past two years, I have experimented with strategies, so I would feel more comfortable turning the discussion over to my students (and to make them more at ease with taking ownership). These trials turned into my “Roundtable Discussion,” and it’s become a great success. Both students and administrators praised the use of this discussion format, which I employed in my American Literature and AP Literature and Composition classes.

Here are some reasons why class discussions became more meaningful:

1. Students prepare for their discussions. They use handouts to summarize, to identify quotes and vocabulary, to write questions, and to research topics related to their reading. These handouts are assigned with specific chapters and discussion dates in mind. Students bring them to class and their completed work is stamped at the beginning of discussion.

2.  They write to get started.  Students respond to a quick write on their response sheets before discussion.  The prompt varies- sometimes asking a general question about literature and sometimes asking a specific question about their current reading.  For a recent quick write in AP Literature, students wrote about the structure of Snow Falling on Cedars.  This lead to a good discussion of nonlinear formats for novels.

3. Students rehearse. After setting goals for discussion, students meet with partners, sharing their quick writes, handouts, and goals. Next, they move the desks into a circle and participate in a “whip around.” During this activity, each student shares one thought about their reading. They cannot respond to each other at this point; they just listen. Finally, this leads into spontaneous discussion.

4.  They listen to one another and take notes. During the discussion, I ask my students to note at least three - four interesting comments they heard their classmates contribute to the discussion.  I encourage them to use these notes to help them build their comments off of one another's ideas.  If I have a large class, I split them into two groups, and the "outside" circle only listens and jots notes.  This helps keep them focused.

5. After the discussion, students reflect on the day’s conversation. Often, they write about whether they achieved their goals, but on other occasions I give them specific prompts related to rubric criteria. Sometimes I also use inside/outside circles, and students observe one another. Then they used their peer’s feedback for their reflections.

With practice, students had thoughtful discussions, and I was rewarded with time to simply listen and observe. This has helped me develop other lessons based on my informal assessment.

Best of all? It’s wonderfully relaxing to be a listener and not the lead participant in the discussion.  Students take ownership for their learning!

Would you be interested in learning more Roundtable Discussion? You can get handouts, a rubric, and a lesson plan here.

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