Question from the Classroom
My students always direct their answers to me during discussion. How can I get them to talk more to each other and get a real discussion going?
When first starting your Junior Great Books program, it's natural that students will respond to your questions just as they do in the regular classroom setting. That is, you ask a question and they direct their answers to you. They don't know what a good Shared Inquiry™ discussion looks or feels like. Just as you might have to change gears from your usual teaching habits when acting as a discussion leader, your students have to change gears too. You can help them become good participants by explaining to them what makes a good discussion, by modeling good follow-up skills for them, and by encouraging them to interact more.
Before each discussion, remind your students that they are free to add to each other's ideas, to agree and disagree, and even to ask questions of each other. Preface the discussion activity with comments like: "Joe, if you agree or disagree with one of Whitney's ideas, you can just say so. Sarah, if Hector says something and you want him to explain further or show you where he got the idea, just turn to him and ask him your question."
Besides telling your students that they are free to interact, you can show them that you want more interaction through your follow-up questions. For example, once a student has give you an answer, ask other participants whether they agree or disagree with that answer. Ask them if they understand the answer or if they see evidence for it: "Does Jason's answer make sense to you, Madison? Jason, can you explain to Madison what you were trying to say? Ray, can you help Jason find evidence for his answer?" Asking these kind of questions helps make an individual's answer the property of the group, the answer out on the floor for the whole group to consider.
After your discussion, praise the group for the times they did interact and let them know that you hope they do more of it the next time. Once students do interact and see that it is something you encourage in discussion, they will start working together as a group. Remember that the other Junior Great Books program activities, especially Prereading, Directed Notes, and Vocabulary, also provide opportunities for students to practice the same skills they use in Shared Inquiry discussion. These activities give students specific interpretive issues to talk about and help them become more comfortable with examining ideas as a group.
Sharing their opinions with their peers, considering others' viewpoints, debating issues, and asking lots of their own follow-up questions is what makes Junior Great Books so much fun for students. With that kind of interaction, you can be sure that they have really improved their listening and critical-thinking skills. Teaching students to become good Shared Inquiry participants is a process that might take some time, but soon you'll be commenting on how difficult it is to get them to stop talking to each other about the stories and the issues they raise.