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In the 15 years I’ve been an ELA teacher, do you know the number one thing that finally turned my small group discussions from surface-level talks that seemed like a waste of a class period into engaged, high-level analysis and collaboration? Discussions during which I not-so-secretly hoped my principal would walk in and observe my students talking about their current text?
A Real Talk Discussion activity!
Years of trial and error with small group discussions finally led me to this breakthrough strategy. In fact, it was because of one class in particular, who had difficulty staying focused when they worked in small groups without an adult nearby to guide them, that especially needed a new structured activity to help them have anything beyond superficial small talk.
In the past, I had structured class discussions with strategies like literature circles, where each student is assigned a role with a specific job to do like Discussion Director, Literary Luminary, Symbol Sleuth, and so on. But I had found that these actually constricted students, limiting them to shallow, perfunctory conversation. The roles acted like flotation devices, keeping students at the surface with no chance of diving deeper.
During that year’s lit circle unit, at each group I visited, I listened to surface-level questions and answers as students played out their fancy lit circle roles. These roles didn’t make their discussions any more interesting or enlightening; in fact, it was painful to listen to students repeatedly review the main plot points without really analyzing the author’s craft or making deep connections with the text. Furthermore, it wasn’t just their lit circle discussions that were suffering. From what my colleagues were telling me, their lack of analysis and a deeper understanding of a text was carrying over into their science and history reading as well.
I had to ask myself, were these discussions really helping my students master, let alone meet, the standards? And frankly, the answer was no.
I knew these discussions could be so much richer and more enjoyable for everyone. More, well, real. The kinds of conversations that intelligent and interested adults have all the time. It was time to level up, to get students to take ownership of their discussions and engage in more natural and fruitful talk. While I didn’t name the strategy until years of using it, this eye-opening day was when I came up with Real Talk.
A Real Talk Discussion works with almost any novel, short story, or article (making this a no-brainer activity to rinse and repeat in science, history, and even math classes), and it releases students from discussion “roles” while still guiding them through a process. Real Talk starts with talking points from the reading that students write themselves, then students plan and engage in a natural conversation, using talk stems as a support.
The key to making these discussions successful from the start is beginning with a practice small group discussion that has nothing to do with the actual text students are reading. So let’s take a look at a practice session.
The purpose of this first small group meeting is to practice having a discussion, so students learn how to share ideas, build upon each other’s thinking, consider multiple points of view, and come to a greater understanding. It’s important to note that small group discussions do NOT have to end in complete agreement among group members, but everyone should walk away having a stronger and broader view of the topics discussed. This practice activity helps students achieve these goals.
Start by providing students with the following five talking points, or create similar ones of your own. (Note that in later Real Talk discussions, students will create their own talking points. In the practice, you will provide them.):
- What is one thing that is really popular right now but future generations will think is silly?
- What is the worst piece of advice a person can give?
- “Instinct is no match for reason.” (Quote from the text students are currently reading)
- “Chocolate is my Achilles Heel.” (Discuss why an author might use this allusion and students’ own Achilles Heels.)
- If we ever find evidence of intelligent beings beyond Earth, should we try to contact them?
Instruct students to discuss those talking points by sharing their opinions and backing them up with not only reasoning (why they believe this), but also examples to clarify and strengthen their reasoning.
Encourage them to listen carefully as others share their point of view and then either agree and add on to it (“I agree! Another example that supports this opinion is . . .”), challenge it politely (“I understand what you mean about X, but have you considered . . .”), or change their opinion (“Originally, I thought X. However, Zoe changed my thinking because . . .”).
It can be incredibly helpful to provide talk stems (like the ones below) and advise that students use them to keep the discussions flowing. You can also review and encourage active listening skills, such as making eye contact and asking clarifying questions.
Time for Some Real Talk!
After reflecting on how students respond to these questions and their group members’ comments by providing reasoning and examples, students will be ready for a Real Talk Discussion.
After completing a chapter of the novel you’re reading, a section of your science or history textbook, or even a short story or article, instruct each student to write down six talking points about the text that they want to discuss with their group. These can be in the form of questions, interesting quotes from the text, observations, connections, vocabulary, or stylistic choices the author made. They can write all six on the same sheet of paper.
Why “talking points” instead of just discussion questions? I found in doing this activity that my higher-level students often wrote down quotes from the reading, words or phrases they wanted to talk about, something they noticed in the reading, etc., rather than questions. I realized that these talking points often led to more organic discussion than strictly sticking to questions, so I created the talking points options below to give all my classes the opportunity to branch out like this.
Next, have each student choose their four strongest talking points and jot them down on sticky notes. As a group, students should quickly look through the sticky notes and group similar ones together, then decide on a logical order to discuss the notes. For example, students could group all the vocabulary-related notes together or all the connection notes together. They may want their notes to roughly follow the sequence of the text (for example, placing a quote of an article’s last line at the end). The possibilities are endless and there is no one right way to do it, but the process helps the group to be thoughtful about the discussion’s focus, organization, and direction.
Students will then slowly talk their way through each talking point/sticky note. It’s important to remind students to discuss and not rush; emphasize that it’s perfectly fine not to make it through all the talking points, as long as the discussion is still focused on their reading. This is way different from what they may have been used to with lit circle roles or other small group discussions, where they may feel panicked to fit everybody’s notes into the conversation. With this “discuss, don’t rush” strategy, the conversation feels much more natural and relaxed. There have even been times when I have had groups use the whole discussion time on only one or two talking points! This is because the group veered off in different conversational directions, each still related to the text or ideas related to the text. Isn’t that how a great conversation among adults works, with people building off each other’s ideas as the talk flows naturally?
The magic of this Real Talk Discussion Activity is that each student is contributing a variety of talking points to the discussion. Gone are the roles of Discussion Director and Literary Luminary, where students contribute their single areas of information and can then tune out for the rest of the discussion. Each person is expected, and honestly, usually wants to listen and contribute their thinking throughout the conversation.
But what if a group still gets through all their talking points well before the other groups? If a group is conspicuously speedy in their discussion, there’s usually some rushing going on. Try not to get upset when this happens — remember that these students may have gotten into the habit of speeding through their lit circle roles so that everyone concludes their role before the time is up. Remind the group that there is no penalty for not finishing the talking points. Then, remember how each student wrote down six talking points and chose four for the discussion? Have each group member take out their two undiscussed talking points and use those to keep the conversation going.
How to Assess a Real Talk Discussion
If you’re concerned that students will not understand the expectations of the Real Talk Discussion Activity, consider providing them with a rubric in advance of their discussions, which clearly demonstrates how they will be assessed and also communicates what an effective group discussion looks and sounds like. This can really set students up for success.
In addition to filling out this rubric as you observe class discussions, you can also collect the talking points that students wrote. This can give you a lot of insight into their understanding of the text prior to the discussion. Finally, consider having students write a reflection afterward, in which they discuss their favorite talking point, rate their discussion, talk about their contribution to the discussion, and so on.
A whole-class discussion following the group discussions is also a great way to gauge how the talks went. One of my favorite activities is to have each group choose the talking point that they spent the most time discussing. Then we use each of those talking points in a fascinating class talk.
As you implement Real Talk Discussion Activities in your classroom, you’ll come to realize the increase in analysis, collaboration, and engagement with your students as they interact more closely with the text and each other. Finally, an answer to having effective group discussions in your classroom!
You can find more great ideas from Jessica on her website, EB Academics. And check out the 2021 book she co-wrote with her EB Academics partner, Caitlin Mitchell, The Empowered ELA Teacher: