Friday, September 19, 2014

Better Discussions

Aaaaaaa! Ive been cursed!

It’s the curse of the expert--knowing so much about something that one can’t figure out how to explain it simply. That’s where I was at the beginning of this week with designing a rubric for teaching and assessing small-group discussion. Even with what I’d boiled down into a blog of my biggest take-aways from my summer reading of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, I still could get no traction on coming up with a manageable, student-friendly format. 

So I decided to ask the kids. 
  • What happens in a really good small group discussion?
  • What can you do to make that happen?
They discussed it in their assigned groups of 4 or 5 while I walked around eavesdropping and jotted ideas I heard up on the whiteboard. Then I asked each group to contribute one more thing they’d talked about. They had some really good ideas:
  • Good argument
  • On the same page, literally and metaphorically
  • It’s a democracy, with everyone equal
  • Everyone shares opinions
  • Everyone contributes on 1 topic
  • Preparation--do the homework
  • Come with something in mind you want to say
  • Be sure everyone understands
  • That thing where you repeat what someone said
  • Work to address main ideas
  • Ask better questions
Then I turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. Wow--were the discussions better!

After class, I took the whiteboard notes back to my office and combined them with a couple of old collaboration rubrics and what I’d learned from my reading this summer. Here’s what I came up with for criteria and a description of what “exceptional” (5) looks like for each:
  1. Comes prepared: Reading done and thinking held (journal, post-it notes, annotation, etc.)
  2. Provides useful ideas: Specific, significant, relevant ideas for which student offers/requests explanation, support, examples. 
  3. Listens to others: Nonverbal (eye contact, open posture, stops other activities) and verbal (paraphrases, asks clarifying questions, offers and requests feedback)
  4. Builds positive group dynamics: Checks for understanding, encourages, invites participation, stays on task, and keeps group accountable
  5. Deepens own and group’s understanding: Persistently seeks answers, builds on others’ comments, negotiates meaning, makes connections, always curious
I brought this rubric draft to class, and asked groups to discuss it: Anything you don’t understand? Redundancies? Omissions? Will this help you know in what ways you are contributing to excellent group discussion that deepens your own and others’ learning, and in what ways you can improve? 

Then I again turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. And the discussions were even better!

I’ll still have to see how the actual use of the rubric for assessment goes next week. (I’ve designed rubrics before that looked great in theory but were nearly impossible to use in practice.) And together the students and I will have to figure out the difference between exceptional, effective, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, and poor (our 5-point rubric) exemplifying of those skills and behaviors. But already the process of collaboratively developing the rubric is increasing learning--which is the whole point of assessment, anyway.

Ta-da! Curse turned into blessing!

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