One of the realities of working in American public education these days is large class sizes. Any time one of my colleagues or I have a class of under 35 students, we find ourselves saying things like,
“Oh, this is my small class.”
I routinely say things like this about one period that has a mere 32 students enrolled.
In spite of this challlenge, I remain committed to student-led discussion. My preferred method, Harkness, is primarily pioneered by schools with much smaller class sizes, and I didn’t take that into account when I first began requiring so much student conversation. For the first several years I implemented Harkness, I had discussions that involved the whole class, which meant circles of up to 35 students.
When my school operated on a block schedule with 90 minute class periods, I could use circles this large and still have most students be able to contribute. Few students were really able to contribute to much depth, but I didn’t fully realize how much the superficiality was caused by the size of the circle.
When my school decided to switch to a more traditional seven-period bell schedule, I realized that something would have to change.
I knew that I would have to figure out how to simulate a small private-school environment in a large public school classroom.
One technique I have implemented is that of creating two discussion circles: one circle where students actually discuss and a second circle where students observe that discussion.
This post will focus primarily on what the observation circle does.
I assign the observation circle three essential tasks:
- Observation of the Text: In this column, the student writes down observations and questions of the text gleaned from his or her reading and preparation for discussion. The best observations here will include specific textual evidence. Essentially, as I tell my students, this is where the observer proves to me that he or she completed the reading.
- Observation of the Discussion: In this column, the student records observations of the group’s discussion skills. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the school year learning and practicing group conversation skills: how to encourage quiet students, how to police one’s own tendency to dominate, how to affirm or challenge classmates, how to change topics gracefully, how to clarify unclear comments or differences of opinion. By specifically watching and commenting on these skills, my students should (I hope) become more cognizant of these issues when their turn to discuss arrives.
- Observation of a Classmate: In this final column, the student records observations of a specific classmate. I assign each observer a classmate from the inner circle. The observer should write down insightful comments or questions the discussing student offers and should also comment on the discussion skills of that classmate. I typically stop the discussion about 3-4 minutes before the bell and ask observing students to pair with their discussing students to share this feedback.
Here are some sample completed forms:
Anyone else have any techniques for making discussion work for large classes?