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Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and How to Deal with Superstars and Shy Kids

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In my last post I gave a brief overview of SPIDER Web discussion and what a great tool it’s been for me and many other teachers I know, and I encouraged you to give it a try.

And when you try it out, inevitably a lot of questions arise. Here are the ones that come up the most:

1. How much do I stay silent?

2. Should I get involved and correct them if they are sharing false information or misunderstanding a key idea?

3. What should I do about my best participants, the ones who love to discuss — they hate that the rest of the class brings their grade down?

4. What should I do about my worst participants, the ones who hate to speak up — they hate that they bring the rest of the class’s grade down?

Good questions.

Let’s get those answers out of the way superficially first, and then I’ll say more about how to use roles to address them.

1. Stay silent for the duration of the SPIDER Web discussion, at least the first few times. Just watch and observe, and ask your students to do the same. It’s remarkable what happens. There are often large spaces of uncomfortable silence; when your students realize that you will not “save” them from this silence, they understand they must save themselves. It’s cool, albeit sometimes painful, to see. One important note, though: always, always debrief at the end. Ask students to talk about what worked that day, what didn’t, and have students come up with a fair assessment against the rubric you provide them. You need to talk then and help lead them through the assessment process.

2. Use your judgment. If students are misinterpreting a passage and very clearly wrong in their understanding (not a matter of opinion, supported by textual evidence, but rather just plain wrong), I bite my tongue for a moment or two and wait to see if another student will catch it and correct it. More than half the time this is what happens, and I’m relieved. Many times, though, I will jump in to quickly correct a factual inaccuracy or misreading that is leading them all down the wrong path. My advice is to allow it to go a little longer than you normally would (a minute or three) to see if the students can be the ones who catch and correct it (this is excellent practice for the real world, where we all need to be skilled assessors and speak up when something looks inaccurate, no matter how popular it seems). But by all means then jump in. No need to wait until the debrief — they’ll have wasted valuable time exploring something that isn’t valuable.

3. My favorite quandary! What the superstar participants don’t understand yet is that they are so focused on themselves they don’t realize they themselves are bringing the class down with their vocal domination. Both the student who monopolizes discussion and the student who opts out of it are bringing the group grade down equally. They don’t actually hate the shy kids bringing their grade down; what they hate is that they feel they are punished for being inquisitive and insightful. But there is an important difference between being inquisitive and insightful and being loud. Many kids who love to share believe that others who don’t speak up have nothing to say. This is an endemic fallacy in education, one that I have been very guilty of buying into as a teacher. What happens when the superstars are asked to listen more often and focus on helping sustain discussion through good question-asking, for example, is that space opens up and suddenly you hear these furtive, profound ideas from the edges of the crowd — the students who are always in the shadow. I’m very careful to help all students see that no one is punished for being sharp; on the contrary, the idea is to have a balanced, thoughtful discussion and we simply can’t do that with a handful of voices over and over again. Why  would I want to reward my students for interrupting their peers and always having the last word because they believe they are always right? In most class discussions, this is how we rate participation. We aren’t doing them favors by rewarding bad behavior that doesn’t even lead to good discussions. Instead, let’s train them how to be really excellent leaders of those discussions so suddenly my best, most vocal student is listening more than talking and asking the three most interesting, well-placed, and well-crafted questions that spark more and more debate.

4. The opposite problem with the same outcome. I’m amazed how often these little voices come out of the woodwork when the superstars are asked to quiet down. Students who would never normally breathe a word during class are often the ones who say the most surprising or interesting comments. We talk openly about how hard it is to speak up when others are always fighting for “air time” and how difficult it is for shy students to add to the discussion. I encourage shy students to start by preparing a question or two and asking it instead of offering up their ideas, which can seem scarier. And I make sure to praise shy students for their milestones (first contribution, first contribution that wasn’t a question, first discussion in which they spoke several times, etc.); I do this openly, during our debrief, as I want students to really feel that we are all in this together, celebrating the small triumphs as a team. As with the superstars, we aren’t doing our shy students any favors by sending them off into the world hiding in the back, hoping not to get called on. We all know from personal experience that the most salient, poignant moments of learning in our own lives were when we were pushed outside of our comfort zones or challenged a bit beyond what we thought we could achieve, and then we achieved it. Shy kids hope to not have to ever speak up, and we are doing them a disservice by allowing that vicious cycle to go unchallenged.

So here is a practical suggestion for how to handle the group dynamics of SPIDER Web discussion: use roles.

Sometimes we have those students that simply cannot shut up. They mean well but they just steamroll everyone. What’s difficult is that many times they are very insightful thinkers and speakers, so they have been rewarded for steamrolling for years. You know you have a superduperstar on your hands when you tell them at the beginning of class that they will not speak during today’s discussion, but rather do the web graphing, and they moan and groan. You know you have a superduperstar when, during that same discussion, a particular heated point comes up and you see said student wriggling in her chair, desperate to answer, and she asks, “Can I just say one thing?” And you really know you have a superduperstar when said student, who understands completely that her role is only to listen and graph, forgets and still contributes to the conversation (sometimes even multiple times) before being reminded she is to be silent.

For years I did just this with my superduperstars, because –painful as it was for them — it was so interesting how much more developed the discussion would get when the superduperstar didn’t feel the need to respond to everyone’s comments. Kids often commented on how much more “room” they had to talk. And it was a good exercise in restraint for the superduperstar as well; she often noticed things she had been missing by talking all the time.

But recently I’ve needed to address some particular dynamics in a class I have (one superduperstar and the majority shy kids), so I needed to expand beyond just silencing the superduperstars. I have done this most recently by experimenting with roles. Lately I’ve come into class on discussion days and assigned the following roles on the board:

– Web Grapher

– 3 Question Asker

– Host

– Textual Evidence Leader

– Vocab/Literary Term Leader

– Key Events/Quotes Leader

– Feedback Giver

I explain them as follows:

– Web Grapher: the person who draws the web of discussion so we can see it and debrief it at the end. If students are familiar with this and a bit older, they can begin to do simple coding as well (see a list of codes here on my wiki).

– 3 Question asker: can only ask three questions and not say anything else. The key is to ask the right three questions at the right time — to challenge the discussion at the point it most needs challenging, to probe the crucial element that needs probing, or to redirect when the class needs redirecting. This is a real art that students begin to develop over time by watching their peers practice it.

– Host: responsible for making sure everyone gets in the conversation if they aren’t doing so of their own volition. They are encouraged to be good hosts and be very sensitive to their peers’ fears; I openly tell them not to put someone on the spot with a difficult question if it looks like they aren’t paying attention, or to lob a very shy student a real softball (“Do you like/trust/believe this character? Why not?”) instead of asking him some complicated hypothetical question that no one knows how to answer (this happens a lot in the beginning. Much awkwardness ensues, but that’s the trial and the error of the process — nothing to be afraid of. Just talk openly during the debrief about how better to handle it next time).

– Textual Evidence Leader: charged with keeping the discussion rooted in the text. If ideas and opinions are flying back and forth, this role requires the student to ask those opinion-holders to back their ideas up with quotes; she might even be good enough as to do it every time herself. I’ve found to my surprise that certain students (and not usually the superstars) are incredibly adept at this, which adds much to the discussion. Since I’ve begun assigning this role only a few weeks ago, I’ve noticed an exponential increase in references to the text — always a good thing in English.

– Vocab/Literary Term Leader: tasked with having a copy of our current vocabulary list and literary-terms list and making sure one of each new ones gets said correctly in discussion, either by him or a peer. The other day during a good grade-ten discussion on 1984, one of my students was describing Winston in comparison to Julia, calling him bland and average. The vocab/lit team leader off to the side was whispering something he couldn’t hear. “What?” he whispered back to her. “‘Prosaic,'” she stage whispered back, and everyone laughed. We had just had the word on a quiz that very day. “Yes, Winston is quite prosaic,” he agreed.

– Key Events/Quotes Leader: this is the newest role I’m trying out, as sometimes I feel that students have good discussions on one aspect of the reading but they never mention other key events. I’m going to ask all students to prepare this every night for the following class when we discuss so that each one is ready with this (a good individual exercise in identifying key plot points and quotes anyway), and then I may start by asking this leader to write them on the board and people can agree or disagree as the discussion begins. Still playing with this one.

– Feedback Giver: this is the most crucial role of all. This is the only student in the whole class who is not expected to participate. Her sole role is to listen and take copious notes on what she hears, so we can benefit from her feedback at the end. Students tend to break it down into “what we did well” and “what we didn’t,” which for now is working well. It’s amazing how honest students can be with each other; the other day one of my students who was tasked with this role said, “I had no idea what Jane or Alex were doing during this discussion.” I myself had noted how off task Jane seemed, pretending to be taking notes on her laptop but clearly doing something else. I was going to address the laptop courtesy rule (laptops can only be used for the discussion; otherwise, close them as a courtesy to your peers, showing them that you are engaged and listening) myself after the debrief, and yet this student took his own friend to task for it quite bluntly. More effective than my doing so for sure. I always ask the feedback giver whether it was interesting to play that role, and they agree that they hear so much more when they aren’t talking, when their only job is to listen. How often do we ever get a chance to really hone our active listening skills? A good opportunity for our kids.

I assign the roles more or less at random, but it’s interesting to note the patterns. When the superduperstars are restricted to three questions, the discussion usually goes much more smoothly, so I often try to put someone in that role who needs to step back from talking a bit. But there are interesting footnotes; a few weeks ago, one of my superduperstars (who usually can’t stop talking and loves to engage) had already asked her three questions and when I walked by her desk, I noticed that she was doing work for another class. I found it fascinating that this student only believed the discussion was worth paying attention to when she was a part of it.

I also find the roles a nice way to engage some of those very shy kids; when they have a concrete role (finding key quotes, asking three questions, playing host) they can often enter the discussion more easily

So give the roles a try in the next week or two, whether you teach IB math or grade 2. Adapt the roles as you see fit for your classroom and let me know the result.





3 thoughts on “Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and How to Deal with Superstars and Shy Kids

  1. This is fantastic advice, Lex. The use of roles will indeed address many ‘problems’ nicely. I used to use two other roles that can really help: Compass – the person who sizes up the most recent stretch of discussion and says things like. Hmm, I think we’re lost, going in circles. Or: I think the ‘path’ described by X may be more helpful in getting us ‘there’. 2nd role: Referee – makes sure rules and protocols are followed, e.g. refer to text, respectful talk, etc. (based on norms/rules previously agreed to).

    It’s also useful to combine some of these roles with inner and outer circles (especially with large classes), so that the superstars start on the outside but get back in halfway thru the class as commenters on the 1st group’s discussion and then as discussants in part 2.

  2. I’ve been using the Spider Web discussion since the beginning of the school year, and I have asked all four of those questions you’ve addressed in your post. I think assigning roles to students is an excellent idea, and I’m ready to try this with our next discussion.

    I like Grant’s suggestions as well. I’ve done whole class discussions, but I haven’t tried inner/outer circles this year, though I think I may try them with my two largest classes. I’ll let you know how the roles work!

  3. Last year a friend of mine attended your seminar at EARCOS in Bangkok. He gave me your information, and I used your incredible resources to set up my class for Harkness. I have used the Spider Web discussion for the past year, and been both thrilled and horrified. My AP class has excelled- I feel useless when I watch their discussions. My grade 10 classes are still so weak. I have a very diverse English group in 10th grade, with some experienced English speakers and other relatively new English speakers. In one 10th grade class, the discussion is fairly lively- between six students. The rest will contribute one idea at most. In the other class, the discussion is painful- the conversation almost always gets stuck several times with two or more minutes of silence. I feel frustrated by this, since I know that I have several students in the class who are capable of jumpstarting the conversation. This only further proves how essential the Spider Web discussion is, as it teaches students to contribute their ideas despite their discomfort.

    I think that maybe assigning roles might just save the day, along with your renewed encouragement for the teacher to stay silent. Lately I have been piping in to discussions, and have noticed that each of my contributions derails the conversation and interrupts the flow. I need to physically remove myself from the circle, and sit far away in the corner as you suggest.

    Thanks for this!

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