Second quarter, I was stuck. My class was reading the book Monster by Walter Dean Myers and it has so much timely content that I knew I had to get my students talking about it. I put together these elaborate (but very pretty) reading guides, put the kids in small groups for discussion, assigned roles, and set the expectations. Ready, set, discuss!
A mere two minutes later, I head those dreadful words… “What now? We’re done.”
After multiple tweaks and failed attempts, I went to my Instructional Coach, Ellen Harford, looking for help with making these discussions work. She said to me, “I have this book that relates to your problem. Look at this...”
Enter: The Best Class You Never Taught by Alexis Wiggins.
I love trying new things; I’m usually up for anything. I read this book over winter break--it was fast and easy to read. I came back from break ready to plan out my implementation of Spider Web Discussions (SWD).
At this point, you may be wondering just what this "SWD" is. Here’s the gist: it is a whole class discussion guided only by the students with no input or direction from the teacher. The entire class gets the same grade (in the gradebook, but no count) based on pre-established criteria and post-discussion debriefing. What does the teacher do? Write all the students’ names on a paper and note where they are sitting, listen to the discussion, and draw lines from one speaker to the next.
Starting in quarter 3, our class was reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, and there is plenty of fodder for discussion in that book. I spent part of a class period introducing SWDs including the grading criteria and showing an example video. The next day, we got the desks in a circle, I took up my position at a student desk just outside the circle, started the timer, and told the students to start discussing the question.
I had two different sections doing the same discussion that day, and both can be described as…rough (to put it nicely). Both classes received an 'F'. They filled the 20 minutes, but did not meet almost any parts of the grading criteria.
Here’s why it was still incredible: we debriefed after. I took a picture of the diagramming I had done, put it up on the board, and let the kids take a look. It took a minute for the kids to understand what they were looking at, but when they did and they compared it to the criteria… light bulbs went off. They all had instant, individual feedback.
We did SWDs four more times for the book Night, plusI brought it into my writing class. We evaluated sample essays based on the essay rubric. The SWD had the same criteria and was graded every time. The kids flowed naturally into it in writing class because we’d had such consistent exposure to it in reading class while we were building the skills.
We just finished our final SWD for the year. The question? Who’s to blame for the death of both Romeo and Juliet? Both classes earned their first 'B' on the SWD and there were cheers by all.
The kids had had such quality feedback from me AND from each other in the debriefing that they knew what to focus on in the discussion. I didn’t have to point out the important details: they did that. I didn’t have to draw their attention to flaws in thinking: they did that. I didn’t have to encourage the quiet kids to speak: they did that for each other. I didn’t have to shush the dominating talkers: they did that themselves.
SWDs have changed the landscape of my classroom. The students know what to do for each discussion now, they enjoy having so much time to talk and debate, and they get the academic speaking practice they need in an authentic way. I have never read a book about my teaching practice that I could literally implement the next day until The Best Class You Never Taught. If you think it can’t work because Javier never talks or Samira never stops talking, Wiggins problem-solves that with you and it works! If you think it can’t work because the kids might miss the big ideas, the group grade forces them to be prepared, which allows them to reach the big ideas.
I’m telling you, this will be one of the first strategies I implement next fall because we’re going to do it all year long.
This post brought to you by Bridget Bordelon, English Language (EL) teacher at John Marshall High School
Feel free to connect with Bordelon via email
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