George Lucas Educational Foundation
Collaborative Learning

Discussion Protocols That Engage All Students

Class discussions work best when everyone participates, and these strategies for grades 6 to 12 help ensure that happens.

September 30, 2022
High school students work in small groups
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

Students sharing their thoughts and showing what they know is an essential element of education, both for growing skills and for building connections. But with 25-plus kids in a classroom, hearing from every English language arts student in grades 6 to 12 in a meaningful way is next to impossible.

And while I love a great whole-group discussion, rarely does everyone truly engage unless I make a special effort. So I developed some strategies to help me hear from everyone while increasing engagement and deepening student thinking. As a bonus, these methods work whether or not you’re in the classroom and can be facilitated by a sub or even a student (if you make arrangements ahead of time).

Strategy 1: Silent Discussion

These are exactly that: Silent. Discussions. English teacher Wendy Bichler in Ashley, North Dakota, demonstrated this technique during a class observation. Students write their responses to various prompts and questions. Everyone gets a chance to engage with the question, including those who need more time to process and those reluctant to share with the whole class.

The silence can be hard at first, but it leads to an intense focus (and a break from all the clamor of school) that’s valuable in and of itself. This strategy works as a bell ringer or main activity and is a great way to kick off or wrap up a unit.

How to: Have each student take out one or two blank pieces of paper. Post a question, picture, quote, meme, problem, or anything else you’d like students to respond to. You’ll be posting multiple questions, so I suggest projecting the questions via a slide deck so they’re easy to see.

Here’s how it works:

  • Students respond on their papers, signing each response. Start with 2 minutes and then adjust based on pencil activity. Allow students to write in sentences or in lists—the ideas are more important here than the prose.
  • Rotate papers. Students read what the previous classmate wrote and respond. (You may also post another question as an option to help students write more.) Rotate. Repeat two to four times per question so that students engage with each other’s ideas and responses.
  • Post a new question. Repeat as above, as many times as you like.

Sub tip: So that the sub doesn’t have to deal with school tech, preprint the questions, one for each student. For the sub plans, I made two or three copies of each question, as I rarely had 25-plus questions. Collate the questions to ensure their distribution around the room. The sub posts the guidelines; hands out the questions, one to each student; and times the rotations. This works particularly well if you’ve already used this strategy so that students know the ropes.

Deepen the connections by asking students to answer questions using quotes from the textbook/assignment; or as a historical figure, literary character, or another persona; or with quick research (with a phone or other device).

Strategy 2: Poster Walk Discussion

This is similar to a silent discussion, but students rotate instead of the papers. Print or write out each question or prompt on a piece of paper or oversized sticky note, then post them around the room. Students rotate every two to three minutes, choosing which “poster” to complete.

For me, the poster walk was more content specific: Students used their books, quoted passages, and looked up information. Some posters had two parts; if a student completed part A, a different student completed part B. Prepped the day before, it’s another simple plan for a substitute.

How to: Post questions/prompts around the room (post more questions than there are students).

  • Students have 2 to 3 minutes to write their responses; they may use their text/book/materials.
  • Rotate. Respond to what others wrote or add a new idea, as directed on the poster.

You can check out a sample set for The Great Gatsby.

Deepen the connections by using the posters to guide discussion the following day. You can also have students/groups write character rebuttals to the poster content or analysis.

Strategy 3: Poster Rotation Group Discussion

While the first two strategies are solo and silent, this strategy is designed for small groups and gets loud. The posters are divided into small tasks focusing on content you want students to discuss or skills you want them to cultivate. Students work together and dig in while you rotate to support, nudge, and assist. Even at 7:45 a.m., this got students talking, engaging, and collaborating.

How to: First, decide how many groups you want. Then create one poster per group, with one fewer task than you have groups. For example: For six groups, have six posters with five tasks per poster; that way, each group ends up with their original poster.

Students work as a team to answer/complete the first task. Rotate posters. Groups discuss what the previous group wrote, then complete task two. Rotate and continue until each group has seen each poster and groups have their original poster. (Note: You could have smaller groups and make two sets of each poster.) The groups then synthesize what everyone else wrote.

Here are a few examples:

Deepen the connections by following up with a traditional gallery walk: Gather the posters from all your classes and hang similar posters together. Give students three sticky notes each, and have them write down their top three favorite insights from all the posters. Use the sticky notes for that day’s discussion (as a whole class or in small groups).

You can also follow up with a jigsaw: Students meet in their original groups and review their poster (and posters from other sections). Groups number themselves one to six (depending on group size) and regroup by number to compare and contrast posters.

Group discussions are great, but ensuring that we hear from every student is too important to stop at one method. These strategies can help build confidence and skills that enhance future group discussions.

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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