Small group discussions are a great concept, but they can quickly get out of hand if we simply release our students without guidance. I've had visions of a great classroom discussion with meaningful questions and thoughtful comments, only to have the entire lesson bust because I had not set up expectations, or modeled communication skills, and simply assumed my students were good-to-go. If you have ever found yourself in my position, or are getting ready to create small groups for your station activities, discussion groups, or projects, here are some helpful tips.
Setting Small Group Discussion Expectations:
Before creating my small groups, I go over expectations. It can be helpful to create a visual that focuses on what the group will "sound like, look like, and feel like." Creating an anchor chart that remains posted in the classroom will save you time in the long run, because you can simply point and refer to the chart rather than re-explaining every concept.
Modeling Good Communication Skills:
The reality is that we have to explicitly teach communication skills. If we want to avoid cross-talking or interrupting, we have to model what good communication skills look and sound like.
I usually pull several students to help me model a small group discussion. I usually choose students to help that are prone to interrupt, be off-task, or need to be re-directed to participate in my role play. I've found that once they participate in my role play, they are more likely to be exemplary students when it comes to small group discussions.
Model explicitly what a small group should look like, sound like, and feel like. And then model what it should NOT be. Be obnoxious and silly to get the point across. Students love this, and I feel like it makes the biggest impact when it comes to small group discussion time.
Here are a few communication skills I cover:
Eye Contact: show respect by looking at the speaker.
Facial Expressions: We need to be careful that our facial expressions don't come across as rude (ex. rolling eyes).
Listening: Listen to hear, rather than listen to immediately respond.
Cross-talk: This occurs when we talk to the person across from us (or next to us) while the speaker is sharing. This is disrespectful of the speaker as well as those trying to hear what the speaker has to say.
Interrupting: Wait until the speaker is done before responding.
Tone: We can be right, but wrong in our tone of voice. This includes being sarcastic, rude, or talking at the top of our lungs.
Responding with Care: I provide my students with sentence starters so that they can respond in a thoughtful and polite manner.
A moment of pause is ok: Here's the deal, sometimes we think that an effective group discussion is where students are talking the entire time. Sometimes a moment of silence to process a question or a comment is needed, and that moment of silence is a good thing. Embrace the pause.
How to redirect: If a student is off-task, you might remind students how to re-direct the conversation respectfully. For example, you might demonstrate how to do this by making a statement that pulls the student back into the conversation. For example, " Ali, what are your thoughts on this question?"
Provide Students with Conversation Starters:
While modeling good communication and meaningful discussions is a great place to start, I've found that providing students with a cheat sheet of sentence starters can be really helpful to facilitating effective classroom discussions.
For students that are hesitant to speak up, or tend to avoid participating, these sentence starters can be just what they need to gain confidence and use their voice.
For students who are quick to respond, these sentence starters can create pause, or help students reframe what they are wanting to share.
Print off a copy for each small group. Print on cardstock for durability. Laminate or place in a plastic sheet protector to use multiple times. You could also print a copy for each student to place in their notebook. These sentence starters can be so helpful in situations beyond just the classroom.
I'd love to pass along a free copy of these anchor charts. I've also included a blank chart so that you can create your own anchor chart with your students. Download PDF by clicking the link below.
Review these charts often, especially as you first start your small group discussions. Going over these concepts one time is probably not going to be enough. And model, model, model.
Point out groups that do an excellent job, and discuss why their group discussion was safe, collaborative, and meaningful. Keep modeling until your classroom discussions can begin with ease.
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