Written by Heath Kelley, DMS 5th Grade Teacher
Culminating Tasks for Close Reading
I have found in my implementation of close reading that students eagerly want a platform to discuss and share the new insights they have discovered. The one task that has had the most success for me has been to structure a student-led discussion. This task incorporates many facets of ELA including multiple speaking and listening standards.
During the last two years, Steve Peterson and I have experimented with using a structured protocol for these student-led discussions. We researched fish-bowl discussions, socratic seminars, and other formats before creating a simple, more fifth-grade friendly protocol.
Take a look below at the video Andrew Ellingsen put together of students in my classroom participating in a student-led discussion. The discussion helpers that we use are highlighted in the video.
Here are the basics of how our student-led discussions work...
Students Prepare for Discussion
Students are told ahead of time that the discussion will occur and are asked to select from a list of writing prompts. The writing prompts or “writing to learn prompts” as we call them, ask students to dig deeply into the text to find themes and important choices the author made. Students are asked to explore how the character changed and what the author wanted us to learn. They are encouraged to cite textual evidence to support their ideas. The writing is designed to untangle and organize student thinking so students are prepared for academic discussion.
Students are also encouraged to write down some of their own questions along with participating in additional re-reading and annotation.
On the day of the discussion, we organize the room into an inner and outer circle. We set goals as a group which relate to our discussion helper prompts. Refer here to read more about the creation of these discussion helpers (great work Steve and Andrew). Also, here are some examples of goals. Our most recent goals were to build on ideas like a ping pong match and dwell on one question at a time. After each discussion, we reflect on potential goals for the future. The observers on the outside of the discussion help monitor our progress toward these goals.
The Inner and Outer Circles
The students bring only their annotated text to the inner circle. The questions students had the chance to respond to previously in writing are projected for all to see. We have learned that this elicits better discussion than having students bring their laptops and anything else that might distract them too much from the discussion.
Participants in the inner circle begin by constructing a summary together as a group. This helps the group remember some of the key parts of the story. After the summary, the students begin asking each other questions. Inner circle participants are encouraged to ask a question and wait for others to respond...otherwise we’ve found they will simply answer their own question! The key for students is to build on each other’s ideas, cite evidence, ask for clarification, and summarize important points (see discussion helpers). By dwelling on one question at a time, students are pushed to go further into a text. It is important to note that we have discovered that 6-7 students within the inner circle is about right. I try to rotate halfway through the discussion so that most students get a chance to be part of the inner circle.
Within the outer circle, the observers take notes on highlights of the discussion and how students are progressing toward the class goals. They also write down questions I allow them to ask after the discussion.
Brigit Storhoff, who has also used similar student-led discussions, has used Backchannel Chat within Schoology for observers. This allows for silent discussion outside of the inner circle. There are a number of backchannel websites such as TodaysMeet for discussion within the outer circle.
Toward the end of the discussion, I prompt students within the inner circle to share one takeaway that they learned. Often students point out themes that were discussed within the story and important life lessons the author wanted us to understand.
Next, the observers share highlights of the discussion and how the discussion helpers were used. We discuss whether our goals were met and what goals we may want to have in the future.
If time allows, I have students reflect on their own performance, personal goals, and what new information they learned about the text.
As I read the reflections, the students overwhelmingly explain that they come away with a better understanding of the story. It is encouraging as a teacher to see the students improve each time they discuss the text and understand other viewpoints. I feel like these are skills that they can take with them into many facets of life.
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