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Spider Web FAQs

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A fan of Spider Web Discussion recently asked me some questions about the nuances of the method, and he suggested I start a FAQs page. Excellent idea. I find that I am asked many of the same questions again and again through workshops, email, and Twitter, so it makes great sense to have one place where all those questions can be directed.

So here are the FAQs for Spider Web Discussion. If you have others, please post them below and I’ll try to answer them.

1. How long do you do Spider Web Discussion for in any given class period?

It depends on the age group and how new it is to them. I teach high school; with a ninth grade class new to SWD, I’d start with something like 30 minutes. With my high-level twelfth-grade IB class, we can easily do over an hour and it’s still lively. With a lower-elementary class, I’d start with something like 10 minutes. As you use SWD more, you’ll get a feel for the “right” amount of time. With most of my high-school students, that’s something like 45 minutes to an hour by the spring term.

2. How do you know when the discussion is over?

I try to set a time (see above), but sometimes the discussion is just getting rolling to really good places when the time is up. If that’s the case, I let it go. My number-one goal is clear: to have a great, deep, productive and collaborative discussion. I wouldn’t let time stand in the way of that just because the buzzer has sounded.

3. What percentage of your class time overall do you spend on Spider Web Discussion?

In my classes, I’d say the total time spent on SWD is somewhere between 40 – 80%. When we study a text in English class, whether it be reading Macbeth or watching The Truman Show, my preferred method for discussing the texts is Spider Web Discussion. I have seen the power of pushing students to do the heavy lifting themselves, and I love how SWD encourages and requires that. There are times, though, when some lecture is required or desired, or when small-group work makes the most sense. When we are working on writing projects, I’m often giving direct instruction and then coming around to do one-on-one feedback with each student on her essay. SWD is one tool in my toolbox for teaching. However, it is my main go-to tool for discussion. If we are talking about discussion, I’d say I use SWD 95% of the time.

4. How much should the teacher speak during Spider Web Discussions?

I try to speak as little as possible. In the beginning, I try to say nothing at all. I learned early on not to save students from their uncomfortable silence, and I even try not to make eye contact. I take notes or pretend to take notes, but I want them to know it’s their job to save the ship from sinking. As students get very good at SWD, though, and it’s clear they are working together productively and don’t “need” me anymore, then I might jump in more often than before to probe and provoke them to even deeper, newer ways of thinking. By April in my higher-level classes (my grades 11 and 12s), I might speak as much as any student in the class, acting more as an equal member of the discussion rather than observer or leader.

A good rule of thumb is to hold off from participating at all in the beginning weeks and months, until they are absolutely comfortable with the independence required of them. Then you can jump in now and then, more and more, without the worry that they’ll look to you as the leader. And keep them on their toes — every now and then with my upper-level classes, I won’t say anything at all just to make sure they don’t rely on me too much again.

5. Should you speak up if the students are going down a path of misinformation or saying things that are just plain wrong?

Yes — but wait a few minutes before doing so. The number-one goal is to have to have a great, deep, productive and collaborative discussion. Let’s say my ninth-grade students are reading Romeo and Juliet. One student during the discussion begins to talk about Juliet, asleep and pretending to be dead in her family tomb, as truly dead because he has misunderstood the text. I would not interrupt the discussion to correct him. I’d watch to see if another student corrects him. I see that a couple other students had the same misunderstanding — several of them believe Juliet is truly dead. They begin to talk about the play based on this erroneous belief, and their discussion becomes counter-productive. I must interrupt to correct them. The goal is clear: to have a great, deep, collaborative discussion. The discussion will not be those things if they continue down this incorrect path. I will push them to confront the inaccuracy or lead them to the passage that clearly shows the true understanding, and then I’ll go back to observing.

I do find, though, that this is rare. More often than not, if I wait those first few minutes, other students will correct the students who misunderstood, and I make a point to encourage that behavior during the debriefing process. I think it’s a very crucial life skill to learn how to question, evaluate, and correct others in group work.

6. What happens if you can’t count the grades in your particular school or system?

Then don’t. But you can still assign a grade to each discussion, even if it never goes into the students GPAs. I’ve worked in schools where the grades counted; I’ve worked in schools where they didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t usually advertise to students when they don’t count — I think it helps to keep them thinking they do.

7. What if nobody’s talking?

Enjoy the silence. Eventually, someone will talk. Sometimes students will get very frustrated and chide their peers. Sometimes there is very awkward laughter or long stretches of silence. This usually happens with a particularly shy group. I make an effort to deal with this by never speaking up during the discussion (then they know I won’t ever save them and they’ll have to save themselves), but I address it very openly during the debriefing by talking about how uncomfortable that was, but they got through it, etc. I’ve never had it be a big impediment to SWD; they usually get over that hump pretty early.

8. This is great for high school English or social studies students, but I teach math/science/language/elementary. This can’t be done in those courses/levels, can it?

Well, Phillips Exeter, one of the best schools in the U.S., would argue that it can especially be done in math and science. Their entire school is built on this model of inquiry, and the math department has spent thirty years honing their program. They have no textbooks and the math faculty write and revise the math curriculum problem sets every year. The students work collaboratively through the problem sets, which are scaffolded for deeper and deeper understanding, solving and self-correcting as they go. A Q&A with Exeter’s math department head can be read here, and their web site with problem sets can be found here:

Language teachers I’ve presented to have been some of the biggest fans of the method. I’ve heard from French, Spanish, Mandarin and Thai teachers who have tried and loved using SWD in the classroom. There is a rubric for SWD adapted to MS/HS language teaching here on my wiki:

Elementary students have their own unique needs with SWD, but I have seen it done successfully at lower elementary grades. Elementary teachers who have tried it report great excitement at the results; many tell me they didn’t realize their students had the ability to be so thoughtful, empathic, and independent, especially the weaker students in their classes. There is a rubric for younger students here:

The last thing I’d say on this topic is something I stress in my workshops: the world is not looking for good takers of dictation. The world is looking for problem solvers, inquirers, and collaborators. A scientist that only knows how to take notes is badly prepared for the real world. I have a deep belief that STEM subjects are the subjects best suited to Spider Web Discussion but that most STEM teachers just don’t know it yet.

I’d ask any teacher of any subject or age to give it a try and see if they don’t gain something from it.

9. Do you really not speak during the discussion even with younger students? If so, do you find you need to assign roles to get them started or to model in anyway what you want them to do?

I really don’t speak; not much, anyway. It’s such a relief to have them do the thinking and talking for once. And they are so good at it! I have started experimenting with roles this year. Here is some information on how I use them:

I often show them footage of Spider Web in the classroom (see below) as a model for what I want them to achieve before they try it for the first time. It sets the bar high, but I think it’s helpful for them to see a model of excellence first.

10. How do you give individual students feedback on their performance?

Most of the feedback I currently give comes in the discussion debriefing, during the five – ten minutes afterward when we talk about how it went. I give specific feedback there: “Michael, excellent questions today. Why did you guys not answer them? Michael had some of the best questions we’ve heard on this text, but you guys were too distracted by your own comments and waiting to speak to really hear them. How can we do better on that next time?” And “Jack, see how Rachel was able to speak up and give us that great insight because you asked her for her thoughts? When you speak less, it allows space for more ideas to come through, and we all gain.” And “Reshma, we still haven’t heard from you yet. What can we do about that? How about you start the next discussion with a good question. Bring one to class to start us off.”

I haven’t done much else with the individual feedback on each student except include some of it in report card comments. I do use the information myself to help me grasp a student’s strengths and weaknesses and how I might target them. I’m open to other uses for the feedback that I haven’t yet considered.

11. I need more structure and scaffolding for my students at the beginning of introducing Spider Web Discussion. Any tips?

At the high school level, and easily adapted for lower grades, I use Level Questions. I picked these up along the way from veteran teachers in my early teaching years and they have served me well. They are in an English literature context, but you can adapt them to fit your teaching needs.

Level 1 – Plot-based, factual question with a definitive answer (e.g. Is Romeo in love with Juliet at the beginning of the play, or another girl?)

Level 2 – Debatable. Deeper question about the text (e.g. Are Romeo and Juliet in love or in lust?)

Level 3 – Big, global questions inspired by the topic/text but not specifically mentioning it (e.g. Do teenagers know what’s better for them than their parents do?)

Level 4 – Author style questions — they take a step back from content and themes and ask us to think about craft and what tools the writer used to influence the reader (e.g. Based on the play, what does Shakespeare think about love matches? How do we know?)

I ask students to prepare for class by doing the reading and writing down three or four level questions every night. I have them focus on levels 2 – 4, since level 1 is usually less helpful by high school. Sometimes I’ll ask students to start with a question; in the past I’ve had students come in and put their best question on the board, and then students decide which one they want to start with to open discussion. It requires engaging with the text before class and it helps students develop their question-asking skills. It can be less threatening for students to begin or sustain discussion with level questions in front of them.

12. Where can I find all your documents about Spider Web, including sample rubrics, video, Spider Web maps, etc.?

Here on my wiki:

Please note you do not need to request access. Everything is available without access — just click away. That pesky “request access” button in the corner is a red herring.

13. Where can I see an example of Spider Web Discussion in action?

Here’s a video of my ninth-grade students using an early version of SWD:

14. How much coding should I be doing? What if I can’t keep up with it because I’m listening to the conversation and taking notes?

I don’t worry too much about this. Some days I code; other days I listen and participate more intentionally. The coding is an extra layer of feedback, but it’s not the heart of the method. If it’s too hard for you to do the coding while you listen, don’t code. Or just code for a few key things you want to observe.

15. I have more than 20 students in a class. How can I try Spider Web with them in a meaningful way?

It’s hard to have a good discussion with more than 20 students. I’ve done it, but it’s challenging. One alternative is to split the class into two groups — an outer circle and an inner one. The inner one discusses and the outer one observes, or even takes notes and gives feedback in a 1:1 pairing. Then they switch. I have also split the class into two circles discussing simultaneously, and I’m bouncing back and forth between them. This requires some autonomy on their part and flexibility on mine (i.e. not a good time to code), but it can work well in shier, more reticent groups, since they are less self-conscious in smaller numbers and with fewer people watching them.

16. I don’t know where to start. I want to try this in my class but don’t know the first step to take. Can you suggest one?

Yes. I have a short document for how to start in a step-by-step process here:

17. Do you offer on-site or web-based training for teachers and schools interested in implementing Spider Web Discussion?

Yes. I have a busy schedule full of teaching, writing, and presenting but I love to work with educators and schools interested in developing SWD in their classrooms. Send me an email: alexiswiggins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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