Thursday, September 27, 2007

On Developing And Differentiating Discussion Skills

I teach one section of freshman English at 7:30am, in addition to my position as Technology Resource Teacher. This morning, I was expecting an observation from my department head and principal. Our laptop program just rolled out to our freshman class, and they want to see how things are going in the classrooms. Although I work and come from a school culture of collaboration and classroom visits, I still was anxious to make their visit 15 minutes of high tech engagement. Well, they didn't show up, but I did put together a high tech version of a timeless, low tech instructional technique: Harkness Discussion. My problem with this method in the past is that it sets forth a set of high level hoops for students to jump through, essentially a checklist to be executed for a grade, things like: everybody talks, listening skills are exercised in order to exhaust one idea before moving onto the next, specific references are made to the text (in this case, The Odyssey). So the questions to myself became: how do I include more people? How do I scaffold the discussion properly to try to eliminate the hoop-jumping feeling that the students must have? How do I provide a way to effectively debrief and assess the discussion?

Before I explore these questions and describe the lesson plan, I want to mention that I'd pretty much abandoned the Harkness Discussion technique until reading Barbara Ganley's post about her talk at Exeter on Harkness in the 21st century.

The Lesson Plan:
1. Anticipatory Set: Individually, students were assigned two books from what we've read in The Odyssey so far (up to Book 9). In their assigned books they looked for any kind of reference to the idea of "home." (Home is an element of the essential questions for the course).

2. Using a Ning forum (I was dissatisfied with Moodle's wiki, otherwise it would have happened there), they stockpiled all the quotes and specific examples, cited parenthetically, of course).

3. In our class Moodle, I posted a text resource listing simple discussion guidelines, as well as discussion stems that I asked them to use. Basically, I'm asking them to do two things when they contribute to a discussion: identify who's idea they're responding to and paraphrase that idea, explaining how it leads to their idea. We discussed this quickly.

4. We sat on the floor in a circle around my Belkin-mic-outfitted iPod and commenced discussion of the elements that make up the idea of "home" as shown by Telemachus, Odysseus, and the people and places they've visited. This lasted about 15 minutes.

5. My plan was to post the audio recording of the discussion to our Moodle. (It didn't work due to the fact that the voice memo was 150 mb and our Moodle upload limit is 2mb). They were going to listen to it, find a place to expand and/or respond, and leave another, more developed audio recording of their response.

6. The next class, we're going to go back to these new comments, rate them, and identify what kinds of thinking they represent.

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