being a teacher, new year, talking

How to Have Better Student Discussions

Today was the sixth day of school.  It has been a whirlwind of reading habits, book shopping, learning how to email, and today; how to actually have a decent discussion.  This may seem really simple but year after year I find that many students lack confidence when it comes to discussions, even when previous teachers have had them engaged in their classes.  So this year rather than just try to teach them throughout the year, we decided to create a foundation for it now, so what did we do? We combined a few tried-and-true strategies.

We fishbowled to start with. 

I invited four volunteers to come up and discuss an unknown text with me.  I had to follow the same expectations as them.  For the first few classes we did a poem with mixed results, for the final three we did an op-ed piece on why tweens should not have cell phones with better results.

So what was the set up?

  • Everyone gets a copy of the text, one classroom set,  so they do not have to share.
  • Everyone gets two cards or two of something else.
  • Groups either sat at whiteboard tables (tables covered in whiteboard contact paper – they are brilliant) or had a two-dollar whiteboard (take a shower panel and get it cut down into six pieces, they cost $2 a piece, I have twelve of them for collaboration).
  • Everyone gets a “Bounce card.”
  • Everyone gets an expo marker.

Expo marker and whiteboard:  After the text has been read (typically by themselves not out loud so make the text accessible for all.  This is not a reading strategy lesson per say but rather a discussion lesson), every child should take a few moments to write down their reactions or questions before the discussion starts.  That way everyone has a moment to think before the conversation ensues.

Two cards:   We used the tried-and-true way to get everyone to speak.  When a person speaks, they put their card into the middle.  They cannot speak again then until everyone else has also spoken and put a card in the middle.  This is to help everyone actually add their voice. I do two cards so that they all have to participate at least twice.  After the cards are used up, they can speak as much as they would like.

Bounce card:  Again, not my idea but from the book Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner via our awesome 8th grade team.  The Bounce card is a visual tool for kids to remember to “bounce” off each other’s ideas rather than just state their own opinions.  There are three different paths they can take, they can bounce, sum up, or inquire.  Having the card in front of them is a helpful reminder to how they should be discussing.  Here is what our cards look like.

Teacher role:  Coaching, not teaching after the fishbowl.  Our job is not to lad the conversation but to let the kids figure it out.

After the fishbowl, it was their turn.  I numbered students off so they would be in mixed groups and let them loose, all supplies were already set up for them.


I did not give them any questions to discuss because I want them to start thinking about their own reactions to text.  My students wanted me to but I did not, at some point they have to start generating their own questions so why not start today?

We kept this trial run short, around 15 minutes to make sure they stayed on track.  It worked pretty well.   As I walked around I loved seeing how engaged the kids were, how they were trying to help each other out and add their voice, and how they asked for people to “bounce off” of their ideas.

At the end of the class, I asked them to please reflect on themselves.  We spoke about how often we reflect on how others do in a task but forget to look inward and that we are the ones we need to be concerned with, not how others do.

On Monday, our follow-up lesson will be six different tables set up with three different types of topics.  Two tables are set up with wordless picture books (Unspoken by Henry Cole and Bluebird by Bob Staake), two are set up with op-ed pieces (why kids should have homework and why schools should have uniforms), and finally two tables will have poems (Langston Hughes I, Too and The Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser).  Students will pick which table they would like to be at but then have to select the other two formats the two next days.  Therefore all students will get to try discussing all three types of formats.  I am excited to see how this foundational skill will play out this year.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


13 thoughts on “How to Have Better Student Discussions”

  1. Pernille, thanks for sharing this! I really love the idea of the Bounce cards. I have the Total Participation book, but haven’t read it yet…. Maybe something I need to make time for! I also loved yesterday’s post. I have had many of the same feelings you described during the last couple of weeks, and I was even able to share your post with a friend who came in feeling very distressed about her kids and her teaching. Thanks for always sharing what’s REAL about teaching, but always with some light at the end when there’s a tunnel!

  2. Looks like I’ll scrap one of the lessons I had planned for this week and use this instead. Thanks so much! Much appreciated! 🙂

  3. We did this today and it went really, really well! So well in fact, that we are now going to push it out to our content area teachers! Yeah! Thanks Pernille, once again, for sharing!

  4. I love the idea of the bounce and participation cards. I teach 2nd grade but would still like to adapt this for my class. Thanks for sharing and best of luck with your book!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I used your steps today with my 3rd and 4th graders. We talked about the side of the card that lists the characteristics of a good discussion. That was really important because I assumed they understood what all those characteristics meant. I was surprised that nobody knew what body language is.(They thought it meant names of body parts.) Since I teach small groups of students I took a video of their first discussions, and we’re going to watch them tomorrow.

    I love the bounce card. Several kids started their comments off with, “I want to bounce off that idea…” Again, thanks for sharing. It was such a powerful experience that I’m going to blog about it tonight. (Of course I’ll give all the credit to you and your teammates.)

  6. Excited to try this out in my Grade 5 class! Just wondering about my EAL students – I have one with very little English at the moment. Recommendations?

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