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August 24, 2009 Engagement Routines: Structured Academic Discussion By Justin Lim
Grades 6–8, 9–12

    For some teachers, classroom discussion is one of the most dreaded activities. This is because they know from past experience that the same four or five students will be the only participants, and that's only if the teacher is lucky. 

    For some teachers, classroom discussion is one of the most dreaded activities. This is because they know from past experience that the same four or five students will be the only participants, and that's only if the teacher is lucky. 

    The interesting thing is, as experienced educators, we actually recognize that most of our students probably know the right answers. So why are they so afraid to share? Simply put, it's because for most students, the risk is too great. What I mean to say is that for adolescents, it's not enough to be 80% sure that they have the right answer. The consequence of saying a wrong answer before their peers is too strong of a deterrent and no matter how encouraging a teacher is, it's still not enough to get them to take the risk. No amount of "good jobs" can make up for it.

    In all of my classes I've been able to engage even the shyest students (special populations included) by following Dr. Kate Kinsella and Dr. Kevin Feldman's motto, "competence breeds confidence." I do this using the think-write-pair-share strategy to structure academic language discussion.

    Follow these steps:

    1. Think - Before I begin the discussion, I give students about a minute or two to brainstorm ideas for their responses. I let them brainstorm as many ideas as they can in the allotted time.

    2. Write - This is perhaps the most critical step. I give students time to write their ideas into academic sentences. I provide sentence starters to structure well-framed answers. By allowing students to write their responses, it guarantees that each can read off of his or her answer if later called upon. I have students write more than one response, so that those who finish first have a task while stragglers complete at least one sentence. While my kids are writing, I patrol the class and nominate students to share. This is as simple as whispering, "Hey Emily, I really like your answer. Can you read this to the class when we share later on?" At this point, Emily is 100% certain that she has a good answer because I just told her that she does. I'll usually nominate three or four students like this to get the discussion going later on.

    3. Pair - Now that they've written their responses, I have students share their answers with each other. I pair up students by ones and twos. I'll kick off a pair share like this:

    Alright everybody, even if you're still writing don't worry about it. Go ahead and put your pencils down. Ones turn to twos and twos turn to ones. Ones, I'd like for you to read the question and twos, I'd like for you to respond by reading your answer directly off of your page using that good academic language. I'll give you about thirty seconds to practice. Go ahead.

    While students are sharing, I'll patrol the class and nod my head or comment to show approval and boost confidence. If I hear a particularly good answer, I'll nominate that student to share.

    4. Share - By the time I'm ready to begin the class discussion, students have already brainstormed, written a response and have practiced reading their answers to each other. In short, they're all 100% sure of themselves. I already have three or four students who know that they have great answers and are ready to start off. However, just to be sure, I have another tool to make it easier for them to share. I post generic sentence starters on the wall so that students can get used to using academic language. Now that we're ready, I'll pose the question to the class and begin the discussion. Because the kids know that they can answer competently, they are confident in themselves.

    IMG_0057 IMG_0058

    5. Final Details - Remember that when it comes to calling on students, for some kids, anxiety skyrockets if somebody else shares their answer first. I've actually observed an instance where a student responded, "he took my answer!" in an angry tone and it became a classroom management issue. Instead, encourage kids to respectfully acknowledge a student who has already shared a similar idea. I have a sentence starter posted that says, "My idea is similar to ________'s idea in that..." I then praise students who properly acknowledge others by pointing out that they are clearly paying attention and that they remembered to use good academic language.  Also, remember to use focused and specific praise. Even before I comment on the content of an answer, I'll point out to the class how a student used good academic language and answered in a complete sentence.

    For a good idea of how this whole process works, watch this video of a structured academic discussion:

    Preparing a good discussion takes time and planning, but when these engagement routines become regular occurrences in the classroom, students absolutely love them. For me, the most rewarding part is when I have students who start out completely afraid to share and are excited to do so by the end of the year!

    Please let me know if there are other engagement routines that you've found to be successful!

    Warmest regards,

    Justin Lim

    Rosemead High School

    El Monte Union High School District



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