Still talking Discourse – Let’s Talk Discourse Part 2

Last time I started out with the nitty gritty of discourse.  How I implemented in my classroom on a practical level.  Now, it’s time to move on and really think about making it a part of your classroom.

Letting Go

The last time I ended with how I used it in guided groups.  This brings me to the question – if it’s guided groups, why aren’t you guiding.  Aren’t they being guided though?  Just sometimes they are being guided by each other rather than me. To be successful in using discourse in your classroom you have to be very, very clear in your mind what your educational-goal is for that day, but very open to allowing them to reach that goal in a way that maybe you hadn’t considered before.  And it’s under a watchful eye where I can pose a question or a thought – as one of the group members not as a teacher – that helps direct them to where I want them to go.  I vary the support I give the group, I vary how much information I give them beforehand, I vary the question.  What I never vary, however, is the idea that each group of kids – including those that might be below grade level – deserves a chance to think about complex ideas and voice their ideas.

Connect the dots

Finally, after any type of discussion, you need to facilitate them recapping, quantifying, and summarizing what they discussed so they see the direct connection between what they talked about and your day’s objective.  Sometimes you have to connect-the-dots a bit for them to see the picture they created themselves.

We’ll recap, make an anchor chart of their conclusions, I’ll weave what they’ve talked about into a direct instruction opportunity.  Discourse does not replace direction instruction, but enhances it and makes it more meaningful to them.

Anyone? Anyone? 

To wrap end let’s talk about where to begin – good discourse always starts with good questions. Does anyone remember the teacher from Ferris Bueller?  Anyone? Anyone? Boring questions = bored kids.

Kids love to feel smart, and a good question that they can sink into makes them feel smart.  Discourse in the classroom can be as simple as a turn-and-talk opportunity, but if it’s not a good question then it’s just turn and share answers or turn and repeat what I just said.  Not that there isn’t a place for that – but just to be clear – that is not discourse and does not stretch their thinking.

Developing questions that promote good discourse is – in my opinion – the hardest part.  Personally, I found it a little easier to start in reading.  We are just more accustomed to talking about the things we read.  We talk about that news article we’ve read, we have book clubs, we even talk about the news and movies.

Posing good math questions was a little harder for me at first but I think you’ll find though that the more questions you ask – the more you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t and it becomes much more natural.   I have found that questions relating to common misconceptions really get them talking – sometimes I’ll even pose them as a “who is right” question (I always use two Star Wars characters, it’s our thing.). A good source of this is look for common errors on tests/pretests.  Also Brain Teasers work well – I’ve used a lot from Eduplace Math. And of course – those productive struggle questions (questions that are posed before a concept is fully taught but where they have enough background to possibly figure it out).

For example – after introducing fractions, but before introducing improper fractions – I posed this question. “Represent the fraction 3/2.”     They worked with a partner to come up with a way and then they met in Math-Talk groups to share and discuss their strategies.   Another one recently was “Luke ate 5/8 of a candy bar.  Han ate 3/4.  Han thinks he should get more because 5 & 8 are bigger than 3 & 4.  Should Han get more candy? Prove your answer.” and “R2-D2 says that 3/4 has equivalent fractions.  C-3P0 says no,  that only 1/2 has equivalent fractions. Who is right.  Prove it” (you’d be surprised how many kids said C-3P0!).


One of my favorite things to get them talking about is wrong answers.  Sometimes we’ll also do a “My Favorite No” where I take a kiddo’s wrong answer, make a big deal out of the fact that although it’s wrong it shows great thinking – and have the kids talk about why it shows great thinking, but also where is the error.  I love this strategy because it promotes not only error analysis, but celebrates that growth mindset that we are always looking to include.

Go Forth and Talk

Discourse is an embedded and integral part of my classroom, but the great thing about it is that you don’t have to jump in all the way.     Make it work for your style, your classroom.

Now turn and explain your plan to your partner.  Partners, listen and ask them questions about their plan.  And…Go!