6 Pitfalls to Avoid During Literature Discussions

So you’ve crafted the perfect discussion question about a chapter, but the room is full of crickets.
Or, just as bad, you have to wrestle apart two students who have taken things personally and are now ready to rumble, Outsiders-style.

How does an ELA teacher sneakily prevent literature discussions from going haywire, and what should we do in the heat of the moment when the drama begins?

Chatting with me today are two AWESOME fellow teachers, Jonathan and Lisa from Created for Learning.

Pitfall #1: Lack of participation (or an excess of it!)
Sara: An “uneven” Socratic circle can be frustrating; it’s hard to let the conversation be organic when only a few hands are contributing. In the past, I have given shy students these sentence starter cards that fit discreetly in the palm of their hand. I’ve also made “deals” with my heavy talkers to limit how many times they could contribute, including making secret hand signals to quietly tell them to tone it down or to include someone else.

Jonathan & Lisa: One of the tricks here is to craft sentences and questions that have easy on ramps for anyone. To start out, you ask questions that any of them can answer because it taps into their life experiences or prior knowledge or emotions. You say things like, “There's no wrong answer here .... just share your thoughts,” then you get six or seven or 10 people to answer pretty quickly and thank all of them for answering. We definitely use this on-ramp strategy in our quickwrite writing prompts when we're teaching novels, and we always love the conversations that happened with our learners. And if you're watching the students’ facial expressions, you can tell the student who has a good idea but is hesitant to share it, then word the question to ask that kid so they know their answer will contribute and bring value.


Pitfall #2: Only getting surface-level responses and opinions
Sara: It drives me bonkers when I drop a really “deep” question on a group of students, but they only give opinions, don’t build on what others say, or don’t refer to the text enough. If you’re doing a Socratic seminar, one option is to activate the outside (usually quiet) circle and recruit them as the example-finders, the ones who find what page a certain quote is on or fact-check what is being discussed in the inner circle. I’ve also included text evidence as part of a speaking rubric before to make sure students are thinking beyond just their own opinions.

Jonathan & Lisa: I think we have to recognize what kind of depth we’re looking for, and we have to recognize where we are in the discussion journey. Because there are at least two kinds of depth that we want students to go into: Literary and Human. We want them to be able to read a story and understand what it's saying. We want them to notice the themes and the conflicts and the characters and the symbols that rise out of the story and start talking to us. Sometimes those happened first in the conversation, and then we build from that and let them start talking to us. Then we get to go deeper into our Humanity and what those themes and characters and symbols say about us as people. But sometimes the conversation goes the other way. It starts with our feelings about the characters the themes and the symbols, and we have to figure out what parts of the story are making us feel that way and why. Then we get to walk our students into the themes and the symbols the characters and how they show us ourselves.

Pitfall #3: “Wrong” answers or ideas (especially yours!)
Jonathan & Lisa: One of the most frustrating parts of literature classes growing up and all the way into college was teachers who had the One Eternal meaning for the text. They knew exactly what it meant and that it couldn't mean anything else. Sure there were times I thought I knew more than I did, but they were definitely other times when the teacher was just being stubborn or obstinate and shutting down our ideas as learners.

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Lisa and I had a whole vlog conversation about about the skill of not being right all the time and knowing how to be wrong. We think it's hugely important, especially in today's social environment, the model for our students how to be open to other ideas and how to be wrong and be okay with it. Ultimately I see our study of literature as a study of ourselves which is much muddier water than right or wrong.

Sara: My teacher-poker-face has gotten better over time. I try to ask, “Why do you think so?” or “What part of the text led you in that direction?” before being critical with my response (or my nonverbals). I’ve also had to become honest enough to say, “I’ve never thought about it that way before. That’s a cool point.”

When a student DOES test me with a ridiculous theory that has no text evidence (like the kid who tried to tell me that there were aliens in The Giver… what?), I try to just give them my glasses-half-down-sass-face and make the moment funny.

Pitfall #4: Arguments & conflicts
Sara: Sometimes, very childish behaviors pop up, like the kid who’s mad that he’s getting interrupted, the two boys who are calling each other stupid, or the girl who can’t handle anyone disagreeing with what she says. Sometimes, it’s enough of a fix when I make eye contact with the student and mouth, “It’s okay.” That way, the student knows I saw the behavior and has a chance to check themselves. Other times, I break in and settle the dispute.

Jonathan & Lisa: It sure seems like conflict can pop up in our classrooms at any time. When it does, it sometimes feels like it’s messing everything up. Maybe students are having verbals battles that have veered way off topic. Maybe the student has decided to fight you and contradict everything you say. If we’re having a bad day or not in control of ourselves, we might let our anger out.

But you know what we think is worse than having conflict, NOT HAVING CONFLICT. This may sound like we’re taking crazy pills, but go with us (We blogged about this at length here). In Patrick Lencioni’s business book Death by Meeting, he talks about what makes meetings (aka classrooms) boring and makes us want to die. The solution is, you guessed it, conflict. Arguments and conflict are fantastic toward making good meetings, especially when we steer the journey in the right direction. When we have conflict, we have interested learners. They are talking, listening, likely riveted to the scene because who doesn’t love drama? So when we intentionally construct our discussion to make them interesting via conflict, we get to teach them how to have healthy conflict, how to “fight” peacefully and intelligently, how to clash with ideas and not get snotty at each other (the Interwebs could use this skill, right?).

Pitfall #5: (Un)fairly assessing the discussion
Sara: Sometimes I use a rubric and tally sheet to record who speaks, how much, and with what quality of content. Other times, I just print a class roster and tally (or cross off names) to mark who has spoken, focusing on getting everyone to pitch in at least once that class period or week. I also tend to be very blunt, saying, “There are five minutes left, so IF YOU HAVEN’T SPOKEN YET, now’s the time to jump in!” As long as students have fair warning about how they’re being assessed, you can do whatever fits your classroom policy.

Another life-saver is to nominate at least one student to call on other people so that you don’t have to, or train students to include people they haven’t heard from yet.

Either way, the biggest thing I have learned about grading a discussion is to grade those papers the same day, while everything is fresh on your mind.

Jonathan & Lisa: You can choose to grade your discussion time or not … either way is fair as long as it’s fair. :) Like Sara said, tell them how they’re being graded ahead of time. But remember, their interest and growth isn’t going to come because of the fear of a bad grade … it’s going to come from the quality of the discussion, the engagement of their minds and opinions, and the direct application to their lives as humans now and future adults. I usually tended to not grade discussion. I wanted to build environments of exploration, intrigue, and real thought about stuff that matters straight from the novel. This rarely fails to draw the learners in with passion and involvement.

Pitfall #6: The know-it-alls and talks-a-lots (including you, dear teacher!)
Sara: I’ve had to really force myself to NOT jump in during student discussions, limiting my talk to matters of logistics (like time running out) or facts (such as when a student asks me a clarification question). I’ve also learned not to over-explain the activity too much and to just get started sooner!

Jonathan & Lisa: We have to remember that more learning happens when students process questions than when we teachers talk. So we have to shut up. We have to  become experts at the occasional 15 seconds silent wait time. We have to get better at asking questions than saying answers. In fact, what if we got so good that all our answers were questions? Then what if when they get tired of questions and really want to know our thoughts, we point to evidence in the story or anecdotes from other literature or wise sayings? What if we actually use our answers to model what we’re trying to get them to do in their essays?

After we’ve overcome ourselves as a roadblock, we get to help slow down the know-it-all learners. I have no problem invoking my discussion rule: “Thank you, insert student name, you’ve shared already. Please hold that thought till some more people have shared theirs.” Then make sure you come back to them sometimes or they get disheartened. This Thank You (or something like it) helps them feel validated and opens space for other learners.

It also helps me to remember that introverts often are long-processors and may never share their thoughts aloud. This does not mean they aren’t thinking deeply. (see Susan Cain’s fantastic book QUIET for more talk about introvert/extrovert/ambiverts) The trick is to get them talking or writing somewhere/somehow. Small groups often works better for that than aloud or calling on them.

Do you have more ideas?
Tell us in the comments!

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