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  1. Learners will be able to identify challenges to and supports for discussions.
  2. Learners will be able to model best practices to support students’ emotional health.
  3. Learners will be able to think critically about the possible misconceptions and disagreements that go along with discussions of current events.

There are many ways to educate your students on current events, so why should you choose a discussion format? For one, the skills required to foster these discussions are aligned with your annual assessment in the North Carolina Educator Effectiveness System, particularly the two standards below:

  • II.a Teachers provide an environment in which each child has a positive, nurturing relationship with caring adults.
  • V.e Teachers help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Current-event discussions allow your students to play a part in creating a respectful classroom space and build the critical thinking and communication skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

Discussing current events in the classroom can be an exciting opportunity for students to express themselves and learn about the world, but it can also feel like uncharted territory. Unlike a firm lesson plan, discussions can wander off-topic, fall flat, or grow heated, but giving students guidelines and tools will help them keep discussions respectful and on track. This lesson will explore strategies for starting your classroom discussions off on the right foot. View the video below to learn about one of the common problems you’ll need to address in discussions.

Establishing Norms of Respect and Collaboration

Short Answer Question

What does discussing current events ALREADY look like in your classroom? Where do you see room for improvement?

Classroom discussions need norms like sports need rules: without them, participants don’t know how to begin or what’s off-limits, so set clear expectations before getting started. Your norms should answer the following questions: What is the procedure for starting and ending a discussion? What kinds of participation are expected? What happens when someone breaks the norms?

Expectations and norms should be established in advance, but you don’t need to figure them out on your own. When students have a say in those expectations, they can take ownership of the conversation and feel more involved. In the activity below, imagine you have requested suggestions for discussion norms from your students. Then, decide which suggestions should be accepted or rejected.

Inviting students into the process of planning discussion norms is a great asset for increasing student buy-in, but don’t expect them to master discussions right away. Even when students are involved in deciding discussion norms, they may still be confused about what to do. You can help your students by modeling appropriate contributions to the discussion with the Sentence Starters below:

Now let’s look at a discussion with clear norms: the Fishbowl discussion. For this discussion, the classroom is laid out in a large circle around one table or group of desks large enough for a small group of students, like the visual below.

Fishbowl Discussion Graphic

Before the discussion begins, the teacher gives the class a list of questions that will be used in the activity and time to prepare notes or ideas to answer each question. This can last ten minutes or more than a week, depending on how in-depth the teacher wishes the discussion to be. To begin, the teacher selects five students at a time to join the center group and assigns them one question from the list to discuss. While they discuss their question, the rest of the class listens and takes notes on things they agree or disagree with. As each group of five wraps up, the rest of the class may raise their hands to comment on the discussion, noting key points they had thoughts about. The discussion continues until every student has had a turn in the central “fishbowl” group.

This system is handy because it comes with clear expectations of when students are allowed to talk, how students should prepare, and what participation looks like for speakers and listeners.

Here are some other common discussion format norms to explore: Harkness Discussion, Silent Seminar, Socratic Seminar.

While clear norms can sometimes prevent disrespect and protect students’ feelings, they won’t always be enough. The following are best practices to support students in emotionally challenging discussions.

  1. Be transparent about what events or issues you will be discussing. Contact administration, parents, and students in advance, particularly for sensitive topics. You may even consider reaching out to guidance counselors for additional assistance. Give everyone time to prepare for topics that might be emotionally challenging.
  2. Acknowledge student feelings in the moment with curiosity, not judgment. In response to a student using hurtful language, you might try to say, “I don’t think that came out the way you meant it to. Do you want to try to reword that thought?” In response to tears, it’s a good idea to acknowledge that a topic is sad or frustrating and that these feelings are natural.
  3. Avoid “Pop-up” discussions on sensitive topics. Despite the appeal of “teachable moments,” the truth is that launching unprepared into a conversation on a challenging topic can be harmful: students may not feel prepared to face these issues, and without time to think through their words, they may inadvertently say something harmful to others.
  4. Know when to step into a discussion, even if it violates the class norms. This is a good guideline to keep in mind: if you have an ethical concern about what students say, you need to speak up. Remember: human rights are not debatable. Any dehumanizing language, even about groups that aren’t represented in your class, must be addressed.

Anticipating Misconceptions and Disagreements

Anticipating Misconceptions and Disagreements Graphic

Establishing norms helps students understand the procedures of a discussion, but they don’t prevent students from struggling with the content. Luckily, preparing materials to help students keep track of new ideas or follow along with a reading can avoid a lot of confusion down the road. Consider creating glossaries for challenging words, note catchers for the big ideas of readings, or using the Guiding Questions document linked below. These aids can “preview” important ideas or questions and give students an idea of where to start when dealing with new concepts.

Another way to prevent confusion and disagreements is by acknowledging (when appropriate) that some questions don’t have correct answers and that there are multiple valid perspectives on modern issues. Admitting that big questions don’t have simple answers allows students to think past “right” and “wrong” to see multiple interpretations.

For some topics, it’s easy to foresee where students might be confused or ready to disagree. In these cases, it is particularly important to address misunderstandings and respectfully summarize common stances before a discussion begins. Practice this skill in the short answer question below.

Short Answer Question

What disagreements or misunderstandings could you expect in a conversation based on “raising income taxes”?

While good discussions let students help each other learn, you can’t rely on students to spot their misunderstandings or for other students to correct them. Make plans to address important misconceptions before, during, or after the discussion, without taking over the students’ conversation. In the best discussions, teachers are observers offering occasional clarification, not discussion leaders.

Of course, not all discussions will go as you hope, and that’s OK. Even if a discussion isn’t an immediate success, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Consider “exit tickets”: questions each student needs to answer on paper or online before leaving the room or moving on to a new activity. Try taking “exit tickets'' from students at the end of a discussion to gauge what they learned and what questions they still have. Leave yourself time the following day to address those questions or concerns and celebrate what worked.

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