Using the Spider Web Discussion with Historical Fiction Book Clubs

Student Directed Learning

Back in March when Diane and I had the a-ha moment after giving teachers professional development at the Intermediate Unit which you can read here, we ended up zigzagging our way from that initial coaching conversation to the first classroom spider web discussion. Diane decided to rip off the band aid and just do it one day. I may have been freaking out in my head….Is there enough time? Are they going to know what to do? It’s the day of a special assembly and shortened classes…won’t it be a bit chaotic already? But Diane looked ready and since I’m usually the one pushing her, I held my breath and hoped for the best.

The thing about spider web discussions is they are student-led and student-driven, so Diane was right to just rip off that band aid. Was it a perfect discussion? No, not at all, but it was a great first discussion that led to some interesting student feedback; therefore, as hard as it was for Diane and I to keep our mouths closed and not direct, facilitate, or provide our own feedback, the results that will lead us toward the next discussion made it worth it.

Getting students ready for the discussion

When students arrived the desks were already arranged in a a large circle. The giant circle alone was enough to grab the attention of the curious eighth graders. Diane gave students a quote with a prompt for a 5 minute quick write using their historical fiction book club book. The idea was to help the students focus on what they could use in their discussion.

Timers are great ways to keep kids on task for quick writes.

Once students had the opportunity to think about their book in relation to the quote and prompt, Diane shared they they would be having a discussion and that they would be completely in charge of the discussion. She then shared the rubric for what would be a successful discussion.

After Diane shared the rubric, she explained that her responsibility during the discussion would be to draw the discussion. She then shared an example of what one might look like and asked students to turn and talk about whether or not they thought the example was a successful discussion.

Students noted that most participated but not everyone did and some spoke more than others making the discussion less equal.

The discussion

Each period, Diane said go and the same thing happened. The students all stared at her for direction. She didn’t say a word and just stared back. After up to 30 seconds of awkward looks around the room, one student eventually would take the lead. It was interesting how in most of the classes the one who took over was not someone we would expect. Most of the students who took charge were not the diligent readers but more often, they were students who were more challenging but liked by peers. It didn’t occur to us that these were students who had the potential to be leaders, but in this structure they thrived and not only led but were on task and thoroughly engaged.

Many of the discussions went the same way, but at the end of each period, Diane showed them their web, projected the rubric and asked, “So how did you do?”

The reflection

Students pretty much all agreed. Everyone was listening and paying attention, and there were no side conversations going on, but they had plenty of critiques about the discussion itself which I jotted down. Diane only had one thing to say during the reflection, “What will you do about that next time?” And as students discussed their suggestions, I jotted down those ideas too. Everything I noted in their reflection would become norms for their next discussion. Each class pretty much noticed the same things and came up with the same suggestions. The important part though is that the students came up with the ideas themselves. There were three basic themes that they discussed in the reflection.

One thing students noticed was not everyone participated. They were pretty understanding that some people don’t feel comfortable and decided that asking people questions might help.

For example, “Hey, I noticed you are also reading Salt to the Sea, what did you think?

Something else they noticed was that the discussion could get confusing at times. Diane was taking on something we had never done before…a spider web discussion that was not all based on one single text. Students are all reading historical fiction; however, there are eight possible novels!

Students had a lot of ideas including to be sure to share the book the speaker is reading and some quick context for the people who are not reading that particular text. Others thought it might help to have everyone reading one book discuss fully before moving onto the next book. Others thought that they could add to the discussion by comparing and contrasting characters and issues.

Finally, students noticed that they had a lot of people participate but it was more of a share around than a true discussion and that they didn’t really dig deep. They had lots of ideas but one idea really spoke to Diane and I. The students thought that starting with a debatable topic that they would have to use their book and its characters to prove would really get them to discuss on a deeper level. This one piece of feedback that came from the students made Diane and I look at each other already knowing what the other was thinking. This was our next step!


While I held my breath and hoped for the best at the start of the day, I was blown away by the students. Was every part of every discussion profound? No. It was awkward and messy and even frustrating at times. But sometimes the only way to get kids to engage more is to get out of their way, and the only way to make change is to do something that is out of our comfort zones. The eighth graders definitely had moments when they were uncomfortable, and they often looked to their teacher to save them, but she didn’t. And believe me, it would have been so easy to save them. But easy doesn’t lead to change, and I am grateful that Diane knows that. I’m not gonna lie…I so badly wanted to save them too! But as hard as it was for all of us, there was a lot of engagement and a lot of great ideas decided by students that we have faith will lead to improved discussions in the future. Like most things, this work is a marathon and not a sprint, and fortunately, Diane is okay with that.

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