Class Discussions and Classroom Climate

Lisa Wennerth
November 24, 2021
It might seem counterintuitive to be thinking about classroom climate now. It is around this time that we begin to increase the amount of assessments we assign, as students are asked to grapple more deeply with course inquiries, essential questions, content skills, and unit concepts.

I want to write about one small student centered practice that we can integrate into our classrooms to help alleviate some of the current pressures and anxieties that are seemingly running amok in our schools and shift our narrative to building a culture that embraces thinking, questioning, and laughing together.

What is this magical practice?

Class discussions. Sorry, no unicorns.  But magical nonetheless. I am talking about real, deep, meaningful class discussions, where students are engaged and excited. Yep, it happens. But we cannot get there effectively with our students without first building the right climate. That is the trick.

It might seem counterintuitive to be thinking about classroom climate now. It is around this time that we begin to increase the amount of assessments we assign, as students are asked to grapple more deeply with course inquiries, essential questions, content skills, and unit concepts. Unfortunately, this moment seems to be weaving itself alongside an increasingly exhausted and anxious student body. And, as we see our students' exhaustion manifest in a variety of unhealthy ways, why do we continue to flood them with assessments that do not energize their spirits? I think we need to ask ourselves this question now, as the students in our classrooms are not the same students we had year after year prior to the pandemic.

This means we may need to stop for a moment, reflect, reassess, and revise.

Here is an analogy, a lumberjack with a dull blade cuts all day without stopping, but, because their tool is inadequate, they are quickly exhausted and despite their hard work, have only cut down a fraction of what they used to complete in a day. In a parallel forest, another lumberjack who, upon noticing their dull blade, stops, leaves the forest, and sharpens the saw. This lumberjack returns to the forest and cuts twice as many trees in half the amount of time as the first.

Right now, we may all be better off if we took a moment to stop and sharpen the saw. I believe one way to do this, without diverging from our course goals, is through purposeful discussions that are intentionally set up for students to prepare, think, speak, write, listen, and reflect.  

One of the mistakes of implementing classroom discussions is making the assumption that effective listening and speaking are intuitive and therefore do not need to be explicitly taught.

In many classrooms, students have been told to raise their hand and wait to be called on to speak, to not speak when the teacher is speaking, and to not speak over others, what undergirds all of these directives is a clear power dynamic that places students on the bottom of the hierarchy and teachers at the top telling students when they are allowed to engage. Rarely are they taught how to articulate an idea in a way that welcomes debate or provokes critical thinking. There is also an erroneous assumption that if a student is not speaking, then they must be listening and taking in all that we are saying, but we know that’s not true. We teach students the rules for not speaking in class, but we don’t teach them how to speak and listen effectively.

The second mistake is to assume that if we provide students with engaging material to discuss, and then place them into small groups or a whole class Socratic seminar, without first building a trusting classroom environment, they will effectively discuss the material. This is also not true.

So what can we do?

As I begin to prepare students for discussions, I reflect on following questions:

  1. “What do these students need to prepare beyond reading material and resources?”
  2. “What is the climate of our classroom?”
  3. “How well do we trust one another?”
  4. “Are we prepared to be vulnerable to share ideas, thoughts, and opinions with one another?”

I then ask my students to engage in this process alongside me.

Students begin by thinking and writing down thoughts on the type of environment they need in order to feel comfortable to speak honestly. When finished, students share these thoughts in small groups. Eventually, all groups share out, while I write down their words, phrases, and sentences on something visual, a shared Google Doc works well. We then work through each suggestion by combining similar ideas and summarizing the lengthier ones. Students typically take over this process, while I act as the scribe.

Once complete, we clean, syphon and work towards accuracy. I ask, “What would you like to add or remove?” or “Name a few norms you would like to discuss.” I avoid saying, “Do you want to add or remove anything?” or “Do we all agree?” As these latter questions do not invite students to speak in the same way that the former ones do.

If students are coming up with norms that will not work for the classroom, I redirect their thinking. Here are a few questions that have worked for me:

  1. “What is our goal in this class?”
  2. “When have you been in classes where everyone seemed comfortable?”
  3. “What made it comfortable?”
  4. “What did it feel like to go to that class?”
  5. “When have you been in a class where you were uncomfortable?”
  6. “What made it that way?”
  7. “What can we do to replicate a space where we can feel comfortable in class, so that all of us can learn, be unapologetically creative, and participate?”

Oftentimes, questions like this will help steer students back to norms that work for everyone.

When finished, I print the norms, ask students to sign it, and have it visible throughout the year.  I come back to these as needed, sometimes I have to do this often, sometimes never. Most of the time, after norms are established, listening and discussing skills become easier to engage in. (Here is an example of some classroom and discussion norms from my AP Language and Composition students.)

After this set up, which usually takes a full 90 minute class period, I consider the needs of my students.

How many of them are comfortable speaking aloud in a whole class setting? How many would rather participate in writing? How many would rather speak in small groups like a World Cafe? Once I’ve noted student needs, I set up the type of discussion that would best fit this class. If you need ideas, I recommend looking into Socratic Circles, World Cafe, Hexagonal Discussions, Fishbowl, Seminar, and to always provide the option for a student to participate through writing--in some form--during the discussion.

As I choose form, I also consider how to evaluate the effectiveness of the discussion. I typically share a rubric (example) with discussion objectives. While I do not formally assess the activity, I do provide students with feedback based on their self-assessments on the rubric after the discussion. Formally assessing discussions often kills the joy and possibility for authentic conversations, so I recommend avoiding it, if possible.

Before the discussion, I post the class agreements somewhere for students to view. I do this each time, until they get the knack of how the discussions are structured and run. Once the discussion is in place, I stay out of it as much as possible. I simply step back and observe.

The beauty of establishing these norms is that it allows the classroom to become a safe emotional and intellectual space for students to have sensitive and provocative conversations, which many are yearning to do. Many students that I survey report that they want to talk about issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and climate change, but they don’t know how and don’t want to be seen as ignorant or cruel. Can you imagine having conversations about any of these topics without first feeling safe and open to be wrong?

If trying out discussion for the first time with a class, be patient with your students and yourself, not all discussions will be mind-blowing and life altering, but with a solid set up it is more likely to be successful for all of your students. And, at the end of the day, as long as there was at least a bit of laughter, I promise you, it was a success.

Lisa Wennerth
Lisa is a high school English Language Arts teacher, online education facilitator for CEA, and department chair. She's kicked the grading habit and structures her classroom for humans.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now