Managing Group Conversations

Increasing student engagement and participation in class

For Middle Level

Last school year, our class conversations during advisories and science class were hardly conversations.

Few students participated, and when I called on them, they were not willing to comment. During whip shares, many students passed or asked if they could speak later instead. These students didn't feel safe enough to talk on account of a recent bullying situation. Although the bullying was stopped, it obviously had lingering effects.

I tried having conversations with the students about participation, but it was hard to talk about not talking! It felt like a (useless) lecture about the benefits of participating.

I had the skills to manage class conversations to reduce blurting and other disruptions, but how could I get students to participate in the first place?

Less assumption, more explicit detail
I was used to eliciting participation by asking volunteers to raise their hands.

I thought it was important to continue with this safe method of engaging conversation for a while, but in my new approach I explicitly said, "We'll use hand raising as our way of letting the group know we would like to share." Surprisingly, this simple statement about our mode of operation seemed to encourage more participation, as did consistent reinforcement when students did raise their hands. I said, "I see you are using your hands to join the conversation," or, "I hear many voices in our conversation today." In addition, I might reinforce a student individually by letting him know how I appreciated his courage to stand up and say something!

Up the scaffold
I then broadened our conversation management structures to include Pulling Sticks.

I wrote students' names on separate tongue depressors and put them in a cup. I told the students in advance that I would ask them to speak if I pulled the stick with their name on it. Again, introducing the practice ahead of time gave the students clear expectations.

Talking Piece (students speak when an object is passed to them), Relay (students call on each other), and Popcorn (students stand up quickly, or pop up, to voluntarily speak in an unspecified order) were other successful strategies for increasing student participation. The Talking Piece supported participation by providing clear structure about who had the floor, and some students seemed to enjoy the physicality of the object. Relay provided interaction among students, instead of just teacher-to-student exchanges. And students really liked the action in Popcorn. I was delighted to see a student who had never participated before pop up and say something!

Varying which structure we would use and stating my clear expectations at the beginning of conversations became part of our routine. If I forgot to tell the class which method we would use, students would tentatively raise their hands as if to say, "Is this what we should do?" We decided that hand raising would be the default practice if I didn't designate another way to speak in the discussion.

Clear expectations support redirection
Students also responded well to redirection. When the expectation is set, it's easy to give a reminder about the method of conversing, or ask a student to remind the class. Our mutual commitment to our Social Contract also supported us. No one felt bad or took it personally when they were directed back to the rules.

Speaking of taking things personally...
Upon reflection, I see that my teaching mindset was an important part of my success in this process. It took me a few weeks to get over feeling frustrated about lack of participation. I had started to take it personally, and I felt defeated. It was my decision to do something more active during the conversations that empowered both the students and me.

I noticed how quickly students learned improved methods of conversation. These strategies have been a great discovery. Not only did they enhance the classroom climate by adding variety, fun, and accountability, but they've also generated enthusiasm and participation—a perfect solution to my problem.

Erin Klug taught 7th and 8th graders at New City School in Minneapolis, and is now a Developmental Designs consultant and blogger. Read Erin's posts here, including How Teaching is Like Doing Laundry. 

Published September 2010