In early November, I attended the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester. It was a wonderful day filled with useful workshops and great discussions with colleagues. I learned a lot that day; however, one of the most valuable nuggets of knowledge I learned was the silent discussion. What is a silent, discussion you ask? How can a discussion be silent, you’re probably thinking to yourself? A silent discussion is much like a round-robin writing activity. The students respond, in writing, to a guiding question regarding a discussion topic. They discuss the topic in writing for a given amount of time. Then, the students pass their papers onto another student, read what the previous student read on this new paper, and then add to the current discussion started by the previous student. It allows those quiet and shy students a better chance to get involved in the discussion and showcase their learning. This idea seemed cool to me at the time. I thought I might try it in my classroom. Perhaps, I thought, it might allow some of my ESL students more processing time and thus, better allow them to demonstrate their ability to meet the class discussion objective.
So, this past Saturday, during our final Humanities class prior to Thanksgiving Break, I had my students participate in a silent discussion as a way to discuss a current event I introduced to the boys. Usually, on Saturdays in class, we discuss a current event topic in small groups. While this has been effective for most students, some of the boys haven’t been as involved as I feel their potential shows. Perhaps they are nervous or shy or maybe they need time to think before sharing their ideas. Why not try something new, I thought to myself? Our topic was President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for education. We read an article from Newsela together as a class. I clarified a few points that I thought might be confusing for our ESL students, but did not allow for questions during this time as I wanted them to save their thoughts and ideas for the silent discussion. Our guiding question was, Should President-Elect Donald Trump focus on School Choice and Vouchers or the Public School System in America when he takes office in January? After handing out paper to each student, the boys got right to work. Many of the students vigorously etched onto their paper for about two minutes while one or two students struggled to write more than a few words. Perhaps they were taken by surprise with the short time limit and those students who wrote very little would write more following the first switch, I thought. Then they passed their papers onto the next student, read what was there, and had two more minutes to add to the discussion. Almost every student seemed more focused during this second chunk of writing time. I was impressed. Then, they switched one final time to add to one more discussion. When time ended on the last writing period, the boys started switching their papers again as they wanted to keep going. They seemed to like this silent discussion method, I thought. Yah!
I wrapped up class by reading a few of the discussions aloud. They were pretty darn good. I was impressed. The students used examples from the article and their own ideas to take a stance on the issue of education in our country. Wow! I shared these thoughts with the boys before I asked for their feedback on this method of discussing a topic. What did you think of this way of discussing current events compared to a whole group or small group oral discussion? Most of the boys seemed to like all three methods equally, but one or two students did like this method of a silent discussion better because they felt as though they had the opportunity to genuinely share their thoughts with others. They did wish we had more time to switch with every student so that the discussions could have grown into something greater though. No one seemed to think that the oral method of discussing a topic was better than the silent discussion strategy. Nice! I might use this again later in the year when there is more time to really dig into our discussion topic.
I found this silent discussion method beneficial for almost every student. Most of the ESL students in my class seemed to like this method better because they felt like they had time to collect their thoughts and write. My weakest ESL student still struggled to convey any sort of coherent ideas or thoughts on this topic, much as he has done during previous small group oral discussions. He doesn’t seem to be understanding the conversation or ideas on a level that makes sense to him or his peers. The ideas he jotted down on paper were basic and just reiterating what was already discussed by the previous student. I was hoping that this method of discussion would help him as he felt that he wasn’t able to jump into the small group discussions in the past weeks because he felt like everyone was hogging the conversation. Despite having two solid minutes to add to the discussion in writing, he failed to showcase any sort of learning or understanding. This student’s issues are much greater than just not being able to add his insight to a class discussion. Overall though, this silent method of discussing a current event topic proved beneficial to my class. I send a shout-out to the professor from Plymouth State University who shared this idea with me and others. Thanks for the idea and support. #yahforteachersharing