Leading a Class Discussion
(adapted from Tim Gillespie)
At some point this quarter you will be responsible for leading a thirty-ish minute class discussion on a work of literature we’ve been reading together. I’ll set out schedules of reading assignments each quarter and you can sign up for a date. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn something!
Your main goal is to orchestrate a rich, fruitful discussion. You’ll need to have read the selection, then come up with questions or talking points to guide the conversation. Being discussion leader does NOT mean you have to guide students to a particular interpretation. Your roll will be to ask questions, bring up troubling issues, keep the talk going, and generally ignite good thinking. Your aim is not necessarily to display your learning or insights; your aim is to get your classmates learning.
The day of your discussion, you will need to turn in a typed sheet of your discussion questions. Your time as a discussion leader will be graded; this grade will be saved and added to the grade book once each of your classmates has had an opportunity to lead a discussion.
There are several strategies and approaches for leading a class discussion.
Some prefer to throw things wide open from the start with open ended questions like “So what did you make of these chapters? Any questions? Issues? Problems? Anything you are enthusiastic about?” In this approach you are relying on reader response and don’t have a set agenda. You trust that your classmates will jump-start the conversation with their issues. If you are lucky a lively chat will ensue.
Throughout a discussion, you can return to this open ended strategy if conversation lags: “So, what was your response to the incident on page 72?” or “I’m going to read a few lines that this character speaks. What do you make of this passage?”
Other facilitators like to start with basic comprehension questions: who, what, when, where? Beginning with these factual questions about basic issues of character and plot gives your classmates a firm grasp on what happened. Next, it’s easy to jump to questions of inference and synthesis, the how and why questions that ask students to make connections and draw conclusions. Avoid getting stuck on only basic comprehension questions. You want to dig deeper.
Some facilitators like predictive questions, asking readers to make informed guesses about what will happen to a particular character, how a conflict will be resolved or how the book will end. There is a risk in such questions, since the answers are all speculative, and it’s easy to veer from the actual text. Plus, it puts those who have read ahead in a position of not being able to contribute.
However you decide to lead your discussion, you need to have a bunch of good questions prepared. For preparation, I recommend reading your section at least a couple of times, taking notes, and following your own curiosities. Often the best questions are things you’re wondering about that you haven’t come up with answers for yet. You should know the passage better than anyone else in the room.
It is the fear of every discussion leader that they will throw out a great questions and be met with a long, deathly silence. Don’t worry! It happens to everyone. The first thing to do is offer a bit of wait time. Don’t bail out on your question right away. People sometimes need a few moments to think. Wait at least ten seconds…it WILL seem like a lifetime…before you give up on your question. You’ll be suprised how often someone rises to the occasion. If silence still prevails, simply say, “Okay, maybe we’re not ready for that right now. Let’s try another question.”
Once the conversation starts, let it go where it will. You don’t have to direct it along the lines of your own agenda. If things are cooking along nicely, you may hear reactions to the human issues and moral dilemmas of the characters, comments on the writer’s craft, associations to other works of literature, reference to personal experiences, political and social responses, judgments about the book and arguments. In a good conversation, participants will analyze, evaluate, disagree, defend, compare, change their minds, get new insights, astound others with their ideas – in short, learn.
At this point your main job is just to keep things focused an moving for the half hour or so allotted to the discussion. A few hints to help you do this:
Sometimes it’s helpful to ask people to give reasons for their opinions and to defend their comments with evidence from the text.
Keep your classmates focused on the text. If the discussion drifts…bring it back.
Every discussion leader has trouble recognizing people to speak. Figure out your own method, but work at being equitable. Maintain a sense of who has been waiting to speak, don’t only recognize your friends, the loudest individuals or people in one area. Remind folks not to ramble, repeat themselves or repeat comments that have already been made. Keep track of the clock so you have a general sense of when your thirty minutes is ending. Feel free to offer a summary of remarks at the end of the discussion if you want.
Keep the conversation civil and respectful. Don’t let people interrupt others. Graciously point out errors of fact. Don’t let anyone put down the ideas of another. All disagreement must occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect. As the moderator, you probably shouldn’t take a side in any debate.
You don’t have to be the predominant voice, if you are you’re probably not going to have a very rich or democratic discussion. When people ask for clarification of things they don’t understand in the reading you don’t always have to have the answer. Present questions and issues to the whole class.
Remember, the goal is not to agree or to find a single “best” or “correct” interpretation of a work of literature. Rather, the goal is for us all to grow as readers and humans. We seek together to comprehend, enjoy and use the literature to help us better understand the human dilemma and ourselves.
The day of your discussion you will need to turn in a typed sheet of your discussion plan and questions.
Have fun! You’re in charge!
Class Discussion Expectations
(adapted from Tim Gillespie)
When You Are Speaking
Don’t just assert your ideas; explain them. Because something is stated forcefully does not make it convincing.
Give reasons for your opinions. Make your case with evidence. In discussing literature, the best evidence is from the text under consideration – the story, novel, essay, or poem you’re reading.
Refer to the text often
Be specific rather than general; specific examples are most convincing.
Please don’t repeat something that has already been said. Your job is to add new spices to the conversations soup.
Don’t ramble or repeat yourself. Saying a thing once and saying it well is the goal.
When Others Are Speaking
Listen carefully. Don’t interrupt. Reflect on what is being said.
If you disagree with a comment, explain the reason.
Don’t attack a person when you disagree with their idea. Stick to the idea.
Be careful not to label (for example “that’s stupid”). A label is not an argument. Make your point. State your reasons.
For Everyone All the Time
Be civil and respectful to each other.
Being civil doe not mean we must pretend like we agree, it means we resolve our disagreements respectfully.
Being civil to each other has nothing to do with whether we like each other or not.
In order to be civil we must listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong.