Four Strategies for Literary Discussions in the Classroom

Classroom conversations about literature usually go one of two ways: Teachers moderate a Think-Pair-Share discussion, or, the whole class sits in a circle to consider questions in a  free-for-all Socratic Seminar.

Though opposite in structure, Think-Pair-Share and Socratic Seminars suffer from similar issues. The same outspoken voices are heard again and again, reticent students hesitate to raise their hands, and disengaged students stare at the clock and wait for class to end.

Today’s teachers—in English and across the curriculum—can expand their repertoire of discussion formats to avoid these pitfalls, making sure that all voices are heard equitably and that students are held accountable for their contributions to the classroom.

Whether you’re preparing your students for a writing project or untangling a tricky passage, here are four structured discussion activities you can use to promote critical thinking and participation in your classroom.

1.) Gallery Walk

When to Use It: Gallery walks are great for considering a variety of discussion questions in one class session. This technique also exercises both independent analysis and group-work skills in a low-stakes environment.

Prep: Write each discussion question on poster paper and display around the room. Consider giving students the questions in advance. Provide each student at least one sticky note per question. 

Process: Give students time to walk around the room silently and survey each discussion question independently. As they go, students should leave behind their responses on sticky notes and read the responses left by others.

Debrief: Organize students into heterogeneous groups, giving one poster to each group. Students should organize the notes left by the class, summarizing common responses and making note of any relevant outliers. Challenge students to pose questions for further inquiry and invite each group to share their results with the class.

2.) Fish Bowl

When to Use It: This modified Socratic Seminar is perfect for advanced students who are ready to direct their own discussion and are able to reflect on their strengths and areas for growth as participants in a group discussion.

Prep: Provide students with two to three discussion questions and a rubric for group discussion. Divide students into two groups, and organize desks so they are in two, inward facing, concentric circles. The inner circle is the fish bowl.

Process: Each group spends half the allotted discussion time in the fish bowl discussing the questions at hand. Students observing the fish bowl take notes and evaluate the discussion using the rubric.

Debrief: In writing or in another class discussion, ask students to consider the most salient points of the discussions. As a class, set goals for your next discussion, such as: invite students who haven’t yet spoken to share their ideas, or monitor time so each question can be discussed.

3.) Community Circle

When to Use It: Community Circles are ideal for considering questions that deal with sensitive subject matter or invite students to make a personal connection with the material they’re discussing. Consider familiarizing students with the procedure using low-stakes questions before moving on to difficult subjects.

Prep: Introduce students to the norms of the Community Circle: active listening, honest participation, and non-judgemental confidentiality. Organize students into groups of 5-7, and provide them with a symbolic talking piece, such as a small stuffed animal. Assign one person in each group to be the moderator and provide them with 3-5 questions to discuss. The first should be something positive, simple, and engaging, for example: What has been your favorite part of the book so far?

Process: The moderator shares the first question with the group, allowing 20-30 seconds for students to organize their thoughts. The moderator shares their response first and passes the symbolic talking piece around the circle. The process repeats with each question, alternating the direction the talking piece moves each time.

Debrief: Ask students to reflect in writing about their experience in the Community Circle. What surprised them? What new ideas did they learn? How did their own perspective shift as a result of listening to others?

4.) Pinkie Compromise

When to Use It: A Pinkie Compromise is a fun way to engage students in a conversation about an ethical dilemma. Conflicts between two characters or two specific social groups make excellent subject matter for a Pinkie Compromise.

Prep: Organize students into partners and make sure each student is generally familiar with the conflict, the two stakeholders, and the consequence of the issue(s) being considered. Tell students that they will be linking pinkies with their partner and demonstrate the appropriate level of contact. Be explicit that this activity is not an excuse for rough-housing or any other physical contact.

Process: Each student assumes a specific perspective in the dilemma (either because it reflects their point of view or because it has been assigned to them) and links pinkies with their partner who assumes the opposing view. Students aren’t allowed to release pinkies until they have reached what each party deems as an adequate compromise. 

Debrief: Ask students to share their compromises with the class. Focus on the trade-offs students were and weren’t willing to make, and how those trade-offs reflect their values and goals in the situation.