Digging Deep with Discussion

Diane has been working very hard in the last few months to engage her readers. One of the ways she went about it was through the use of spiderweb discussions. They were rough going at the start, but each week the students reflected and determined what they did well and what they should do moving forward to deepen their conversation and include everyone.

Recently we videotaped one particular book club that was reading the historical fiction novel, Between Shades of Gray. Diane gave the students a very open-ended prompt to think about first, and that was all they needed to begin their discussion.

How do you think the challenges the characters have faced in the book influence their life after deportation?

Students discuss after they are given a prompt to think about first.

The discussion was timed and continued until the timer sounded. The teacher documented the discussion by creating the spiderweb while listening. Students can also document discussions as we have done in the past through the fishbowl. The web (shown left) was the one documented during the discussion (above). Notice how students were able to facilitate for themselves and keep the discussion moving.

Compare the discussion with the rubric (below). It is clearly evident that the students were successful in all aspects of the discussion.

I wish we had thought to record their reflections after, it was incredibly reflective of how they have done in the past to now. However, a few things did stand out when asked how they liked book club discussions compared to work they have done in past reading classes. The group quickly lamented the use of teacher-created questions and packets that meant nothing to them. They expressed how much they like to have real conversations about their own thinking that doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.

For more background on the spiderweb discussion, check out previous blog posts.

Seventh Graders Take on the Spider Web Discussion

Getting started

When Bridget started hearing about how Diane and I were experimenting with spider web discussions in order to increase engagement while putting the learning in the students’ hands, she decided to jump in and give it a try.

Why not? It’s the end of the year. What a great time to play around with our craft as teachers when the pressures of testing are not weighing down on top of us. At this point in the year, we are already reflecting and beginning to think about what we can do to better support our students next year.

Bridget was game and so we got to work. The work highlighted in this post is our second week into spiderwebs. I used many of the things Diane and I learned in her classes to get it off the ground last week, but because this is a different population, Bridget and I discovered in the first week that we needed to provide some scaffolding for the seventh graders.

The data showed that the seventh graders quickly understood the idea of talking about their dystopian book club books and staying on task; however, we saw and heard a lot of summarizing and sharing rather than analysis and building on ideas. In order to support the seventh graders this week, we put some supports in place.

Preparing for the discussion

The fast and furious brain dump

Since the students were taking the time this week to stop and jot what they were noticing about the systemic and individual conflicts within the dystopian book clubs, we started this class period with the opportunity to use an open ended prompt that they could write fast and furious in order to dump their thinking onto paper.

This is not formal writing that we worry about our own structure, craft, mechanics and conventions. This type of writing was to dump thinking onto a page in order to begin to process it. We promised we would not show this writing to their writing teachers. The good thing about the fast and furious brain dump is students don’t get hung up on how to write it and can focus just on their own thinking.

The challenge with the way we did the brain dump is there is no “I’m done”. Students write until the timer sounds, and whenever they think they are finished, they ask themselves, “And what else?” and keep going whether its another piece of evidence or starting on a new idea.

This week’s prompt with a five minute timer

After the timer went off, students had an opportunity to share with their shoulder partner some of the ideas they came up with.

While students turned and talked, Bridget and I eavesdropped and had some of the students we listened to share some of the takeaways that we labeled as theme statements.

The image to the right shows some of the theme statements highlighted from one class period.

We had the students have a quick turn and talk about which one of the highlighted themes applied to their novel as well followed by an even quicker fast and furious brain dump on the new theme statement.

For this first class we randomly chose books to join the discussion in the fishbowl, but we found that we got a lot of sharing and summarizing, so we quickly adjusted for the next class, realizing more scaffolding was needed to deepen the conversations.

The discussion

We decided if students needed more support with deepening conversations, we needed to zero in on one or two of the highlighted statements. We chose one or two based on how many students chose each so that we would have 10-12 students inside the fishbowl for the discussion around common theme(s).

Based on the work Diane and I have done in her classes and last week’s discussions in Bridget’s classes, we felt that students would still benefit from the fishbowl as they learn together to strengthen discussions.

Students not inside the fishbowl listen and collect data to provide feedback for growth as described in this previous post.

What did it look like?

One discussion from the day

After each discussion, students who collected data had time to turn and talk about what they noticed before the class had a chance to reflect on what went well and what they need to do moving forward.

Time for Reflection

It’s imperative that students have the time to reflect on what they think went well and what they can do moving forward to grow.

A quick story about the importance of reflection

Last week, which was the first day of a spider web discussion in Bridget’s class, the students had 5 minutes for their fast and furious brain dump. In fifth period the ideas were pouring quickly into reader’s notebooks in the form of charts, diagrams, long writes, and I was giddy with excitement. With so many ideas I was sure this first discussion would be A-MAZ-ING!

When it was time to begin, I set the timer for 6 minutes and then…

they sat,

they stared,

they said nothing!

They literally said nothing for 6 painful minutes inside the fishbowl while people on the outside, ready to collect data, sat and waited for anything, but nothing happened.

In the reflection they were all very vocal, both inside and outside the fishbowl. They brainstormed all these reasons why they did not start and what they could do in the future. So we gave them the opportunity to redeem themselves; the next day I showed up and we tried again. This time we had 6 minutes of amazing conversation with lots of student prompting, which is what they decided they needed from each other to feel comfortable.

This side story is to illustrate the importance of reflection and to allow a space where students can fail but grow from those experiences. Bridget and I were dying inside, wanting so badly to save them from themselves during that initial 6 minutes of silence, but I am confident that through their reflection, which highlighted how insecure they felt and what they could do to support each other, they gained more than if we had thrown them a lifeboat.

Period 5 goes from 6 minutes of silence to 6 minutes of GROWTH!
Data collected from one student outside the fishbowl

One reflecting discussion

Period 3 discusses what went well, what they noticed, and what they could do to improve

A note about choice with scaffolding

One of the tenets of the workshop model is not only student voice and agency but also choice. Currently Bridget’s students are in a dystopian book club unit that offers 14 different engaging series to choose from including, Shatter Me, Darkest Minds, The Maze Runner, Gone, The Loners, The Uglies, The Selection, Matched, and The Missing just to name a few. Clubs could be as small as 2 and as large as 6 to ensure that students have choice.

For our discussion we also allow for choice within the fast and furious brain dump by keeping the prompt open-ended, again allowing students to write about what they have been noticing and their personal takeaways.

Even though we decided to highlight and further explore some common themes we were noticing, the list was generated by the students, meaning each class had a different list, and the discussion was around 1-2 of those student-generated common themes, again chosen by the students to further explore.

At no time did the teachers decide upon the theme statements for students, which meant each class’s discussion was very different because they were based on what students chose to explore. Student choice amps up the engagement and buy in, but also allows students to take ownership and not rely on teachers to make decisions for them.


It is especially challenging for students to have a spiderweb discussion while reading so many different books, but by focusing on common themes within the genre, students not only get to explore how they play out in other books but also get interested in books within the genre that they might want to choose later for independent reading.

In the future, I do want to share one club’s discussion as an example.

Next time?

I look forward to next week and seeing how students continue to grow!