Giving Students the Lead

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by Debra Buszko

For the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of classes in a variety of schools across the district. I have observed well-planned, standards-based lessons being well executed by many teachers. Teachers have a good understanding of behavior management, curriculum, and what needs to be taught. However, what I have noticed most is that teachers are doing most of the work. How can we get teachers to relinquish some of the control of the learning and place it where it will reap the greatest benefits…on the students? How can we support teachers in developing students’ abilities to engage in discussion that pushes them to explain and justify their thinking, and develop and revise their own ideas around important issues?

“We’ve known for almost 20 years that student-led discussions result in better outcomes. So why aren’t these practices seen in more classrooms across the country? The most common response given by educators is that students don’t take responsibility when teacher-led questioning strategies are used; therefore, teachers don’t believe students will be ready to do it on their own.” (Novak, 2014, p.2)

It is my belief that teachers don’t give students enough credit. I further believe that teachers can develop their students’ capacity to lead and engage in discussions that will facilitate their development of the knowledge, skills, work habits and character traits commonly associated with 21st-century skills as early as the primary grades.

Using the CCLS in Speaking and Listening as a guide, elementary school teachers can create more opportunities for students to participate in discussions throughout the school day especially during Read Alouds and reading and writing workshop. “Children in the early grades [including English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities] benefit from participating in rich structured conversation in response to books that are read aloud by an adult or an older, more fluent reader. Making meaning is enhanced when teachers talk about text and provide students with opportunities to share their thinking, questions and feelings.” (Novak, 2014 p.19)

As students become more fluent readers, they can participate in small group discussions around both literary and informational texts, or media. Many opportunities exist during the day, in book clubs, during science, social studies and math, for students to practice comprehension skills as well as discussion skills. With the right prompts, students will ask questions of themselves and others, and link their understanding to others. They will be able to agree or disagree with each other respectfully. They will stake a claim, explain their reasoning based on the evidence in the text, draw conclusions and summarize their own point of view or that of others.

So how do we support our teachers in developing more opportunities for student-led discussions and what structures need to be in place for good discussions to happen?

The Danielson Rubric, Indicator 3b notes the critical elements of a highly effective teacher in Using Questions and Discussion Techniques. “The teacher uses a variety or series of questions or prompts to challenge students cognitively, advance high-level thinking and discourse and promote metacognition. Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking and make unsolicited contributions. Students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion.” (Danielson Rubric , 2013, p.32)

Teachers play a critical role in facilitating this process, teaching students the skills of having productive conversations, building a common understanding about those skills, providing scaffolds when necessary, and providing feedback to students on how well they are achieving those conversational goals.

First, good student-led conversations are able to happen only when there is a respectful class environment, which is in part, one where all voices are heard and valued and students feel safe to take risks and express themselves.

Next, teachers need to be familiar with the Listening and Speaking Common Core Learning Standard, and be able to translate those standards into student-friendly learning goals. Students need to be able to demonstrate the behavioral expectations of communicating effectively in group discussions including being prepared, listening well, staying focused, taking turns, speaking one at a time, stating an opinion with evidence, and agreeing and disagreeing respectfully with others. These behaviors need to be both modeled and practiced often.

Teachers need to choose high level, grade-appropriate texts and develop and strategically ask high level questions. Additionally, developing rubrics with and for students based on the standards and expectations creates a guide for students to self-assess and for teachers to monitor their students’ growth as participants in group discussion. Teachers can work together during professional development time and common preps to create grade level resources including texts, questions, rubrics and scaffolds (e.g. cue cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, and visuals) for English as New Language students and Students with Disabilities.

Finally, the school day must be organized so that students are doing more of the talking. “Higher achieving students spent 70% of their instructional time reading passages and discussing or responding to questions about the material they read. In contrast, lower achieving readers spent roughly 37% of their instructional time on these activities. “ (Allington, 2001, p.25)

The benefits are clear, student lead discussions develop better readers, writers, speakers and listeners, but more importantly they help students develop a greater sense of ownership of their own learning.

Mentoring Tip: Cynde Snider from Georgia Public Schools has a four part series on facilitating student-led discussions, which can be found at the following link:

Each segment is 30 minutes long and has handouts and the powerpoint for you to download. Preview these clips and decide which one (or more) can support your professional development goals. I assure you, if we get teachers to tap into children’s thinking and allow them to talk, our classrooms will come alive with learning!

Allington, R.L. (2011) What really matters for struggling readers: Designing researched-based programs. Toronto: Addison-Wesley.

Danielson, C. (2014) The Framework for Teaching Evaluation – Adapted to New York Department of Education Framework for Teaching Components. Alexandria, Va. ASCD.

Novak,Sandi. (2014 Student-Led Discussions. Alexandria, Va: ASCD.