Discussion Activities

There is nothing better than a deep and thoughtful discussion or friendly classroom debate, but as we know things don’t always go as planned. In classroom discussions, I'm sure we have all been faced with both a sea of blank stares with no response as well as out-of-order chaos.  Below are some of the activities you can use to strike a good balance, keep control, engage students, and break away from the traditional whole-class discussion.  These activities allow for more reflection, interaction, and thoughtful expression.      

The silent discussion method allows everyone (even your most reluctant students) to share their ideas.  It gives time for students to reflect on their own thoughts as well as learn about the perspective of others before sharing out loud.

-       Develop a variety of discussion questions related to what you are teaching.  Write them or project them on the board.  If you have 25 students, you’ll probably want at least 12 questions.

-       Number students off and have them write the discussion question connected to their number on a piece of paper, or you can use this free template: Silent Discussion Template

-       Students respond to the question they wrote with their own opinion.  When they are done, they get up, circulate the room at their own pace, and find an available seat with a new discussion question. 
-       Students read the new question, the responses already made to it, and add their own thoughts to the “discussion” in writing.

-       This continues for as long as you like.  When you are done, you can have a whole-class open discussion on all of the topics, or put students into small groups to discuss.

If you want to read about how I use this method in more detail you can read this blog post I wrote: SILENT DISCUSSIONS

If you have a class that doesn’t engage well in discussion or debate, ethical dilemmas or what if? prompts are the perfect way to bring out their opinions.

-       Ethical dilemmas are situations where a person has to make a choice based on a moral situation.  What If? prompts are situations where a person has to consider how they would react if something in their life or the word were different in some way.

-       These prompts can be used in a variety of ways.  I use them as a weekly bell-ringer to spark a short discussion in small groups at the start of class.  Although discussions are not always used to start a class, I find it a great way to warm up student brains for the lesson ahead.

Gallery discussions are an effective way to get students out of their seats and collaborating in small groups.  All you need are a few pieces of chart paper, some markers, and 5-6 discussion prompts.
-       Create 5-6 discussion questions about the content you are studying and write them on a piece of chart paper.  Hang them around the classroom in stations.  

-       Put students into small groups and have them elect a scribe.

-       Students circulate to each of the stations for a specified amount of time.

-       Have each group elect a speaker.  This person will share with the whole class the topic that brought out the most discussion for them and what their thoughts were on it.  

This method is useful for tackling controversial topics and helping your students prepare for a debate or persuasive writing.
-       Put up 4 signs around your classroom that read Strongly Agree / Agree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

-       Make a controversial statement and have students write down on a small piece of paper whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree (so they make an independent choice instead of following their friends).  

-       Students move to the corner of the choice they made.

-       Students spend 5-10 minutes discussing the topic and making point form notes on their thoughts.

-       Afterwards, have a member from each group summarize their discussion for the whole class.

-       As a final activity, have students write a paragraph on their opinion on the statement now.  Have them consider if they feel the same way they did when they started, or if the other groups were able to sway their opinions.

If you want signs to print, you can check out these free ones from Stacey Lloyd: Opinion Signs.  She uses these signs as a creative and engaging way to poll her whole class during discussions, but they can also work for the 4 corners activity!

Short video clips are an excellent way to engage your students in discussion.  I use videos as journal writing prompts, but they could also easily be used as small group or pair discussion starters.
-       Put students into small groups or pairs and show them a short video clip based on the content you are teaching (or I like to just use a general topic of interest to engage students).

-       Provide the related discussion prompt and give them a certain amount of time to discuss.  Everyone should respond to the discussion prompt in the small group.

-       Have each pair or group share what they discussed with the rest of the class.

Pyramid discussions are useful when you want to scaffold to make a whole-class discussion less intimidating for those students who are more reluctant to speak.  They are also useful in preparation for debate or persuasive writing.
-       For this activity, you’ll have to develop topics where students must come to an agreement on a particular topic.  For example, you could provide a list of survival items and students must determine which three are the most useful.  You could also have a more general prompt like “What are the three greatest inventions of all time?”

-       Have students start in pairs.  The two students discuss this prompt and must work together and compromise in their discussion to come to an agreement.

-       Once each pair is in agreement, two pairs move together to form groups of four.  The new larger group must then share their ideas and again all come to agreement.

-       The groups of four then move into a larger group of eight and again must share their ideas and come to an agreement.

-       After groups of eight, have students move back to their seats and have a whole-class discussion on the topic. 
Discussion Speed Dating is a fun way for students to share their own thoughts on a topic and also hear multiple other perspectives.   If your students don’t know what speed dating is, you could start by showing them this short clip from Gilmore Girls to give them a sense of what a speed dating session looks like: The Gilmore Girls Speed Dating Clip . Be sure to first preview the clip to ensure it is appropriate for your particular students.  Get this free activity here: Speed Dating Discussion

-       Arrange the classroom so that two desks are facing each other in a line.  Each student gets this free speed dating discussion sheet that they will need during the activity.  Have students choose any seat.

-       Give each of the two rows a letter (A & B).

-       Give students a persuasive topic or statement to discuss or debate with their partner for 3-5 minutes.  Set a timer!

-       Have students spend 1 minute filling in the first section of the speed dating discussion reflection sheet.  This is meant to be quick, point-form thoughts to remind them of their discussion later.

-       Tell all of row A to move one seat over so they are facing the next person.

-       The discussion continues and this process is repeated as many times as you would like.

-       In the end, have students write a paragraph on their own thoughts on the topic using their reflection sheet as a reference.  They may refer to the other members of the class that they spoke with in their writing.  For example, “I agreed with ____ when they said…” or “While _____ made some strong points, I disagreed with their thought that ….”

Looking for other discussion activities?  The other Coffee Shop ladies have you covered!  Check 
them out by clicking the links below:

The SuperHERO Teacher - Literature Interviews: A Whole-Class Discussion for Any Novel

Room 213 - Speaking and Listening as Part of the Pre-Reading Stage

The Daring English Teacher - Fishbowl Discussions

3 Ways to Show Students the Power of Figurative Language

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative language

Are your students like mine? They can parrot back the definitions of figurative devices and find them in a text, but when I ask them to analyze their purpose, or to use them effectively in their own writing, they often fall up short. I find that many of them have a pretty superficial understanding of figurative language, and they certainly don't understand its power. So, I've come up with some lessons and activities that show them how and why they need to become friends with it. Stick with me -- you might get some inspiration and a freebie or two!

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageFor some reason, when I start throwing around words like metaphor and personification – words my students associate with poetry – eyes start to glaze over and fear sets in. To prevent this, I attempt to show them why they should care. So many parts of their world are full of figurate language. I point out that we speak in metaphors all of the time. We use analogies to help explain ourselves. Advertisements and songs are full of imagery, both visual and oral. I tell students that songwriters and advertisers use these tools because they know they add depth to their messages, and because they make us pay attention. Then, we do an exercise that shows them just how prevalent figurative language is in their lives. I give them a couple of graphic organizers and send them home to search for it in the media, on their playlists and in the things the people around them say (grab them here).

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageOnce they've had a chance to see how often they interact with figurative language, we talk about why they should use it themselves. For example if they want to convince their English teacher to delay an essay for one day, they could try some hyperbole and litotes: "We have a mountain of problems we need to do for calculus tonight, so it's not the best time for us to focus on writing a great essay for you."  If they want to argue that they should be able to use their phones to look up synonyms, they can call the paper thesaurus a dinosaur. Point out that any time they want to communicate, whether it's for an essay or in a conversation, figurative language can help them do so in a more powerful way.  

Next, give them opportunities to try it for themselves.

Before I ask my students to analyze figurative language in the texts they read, I want them to actively engage with it themselves. Writing their own allusions, similes and metaphors will help them understand how and why other writers use them, because they've had experience using these devices themselves. We do this in a number of ways. First, after students do a writing prompt, we'll spend a few minutes looking for ways to use figurative language to strengthen their points. I ask them to read over their responses and find one place where they could add a simile, metaphor or any other device to their writing.  Soon, they get in the habit of reaching for this technique when they need to develop their ideas.

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative language

My favourite active learning exercises usually involve collaboration. When my students were having trouble writing their own metaphors earlier this semester, I created a metaphor challenge for them. They had a grand time trying to "out-metaphor" each other, and by the time they were done, they had a much deeper understanding of how the device works. Since then, I've added personification, allusion, idiom and hyperbole challenges too! My figurative language stations offer kids a way to practice analyzing how writers use figurative devices, as well as using them in their own writing.

I also ask my students to consider how they can use figurative language in all of their writing assignments, not just ones that focus on description and narration. Expository and persuasive writing benefits from these devices too, so I use mentor texts that illustrate this, and then encourage my kids to use it in their writing. All of my revision activities and stations require students to spend some time thinking about where they could use figurative language to enhance the points that they make. 

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageThey may not say it out loud, but students want us to give them a challenge, something that makes them stretch their mental muscles a bit. Asking them to memorize terminology and spew it back in a test is not the best way to engage them in real learning. Instead, provide them with activities that require them to show that they really understand how and why authors use figurative language in their work. 

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageWhen we start doing this in my room, we have a lot of small group discussions, so students can work on their analysis together. I give each group a passage in a text that is full of figurative language. They need to identify it first and then decide on it's purpose: why did the author choose this device? What effect is s/he trying to achieve? After they've had a chance to do this with others, I ask students to start analyze the use of figurative language on their own. You can grab the organizers I give my groups by clicking here.

My students have come a long way from that hot September afternoon when they couldn't come up with original metaphors. Now, I see and hear all kinds of figurative language in their writing and speaking assignments, which means that now I know that they really understand its power.

The rest of the Coffee Shop gals have some amazing lessons for figurative language too. Check it out!

Nouvelle ELA: Figurative Language Task Cards

Thanks for reading!

Informal Writing Ideas - How to Get Students to Write More

Informal writing is a fantastic way to get students to write more, and it helps build endurance and excitement for the written word. Here are some ideas and a freebie to get you started. (Blog post by Nouvelle ELA at the Secondary English Coffee Shop)

3 Ways to Get Students to Write More with Informal Writing

Hey, y’all! Danielle here, from Nouvelle ELA, and this week, we’re talking about ways to get students to write more.

We all know how important it is to give students opportunities to build their confidence and skills as writers, and we want to equip them with all of the necessary tools. Well, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the easiest tool: informal writing. Informal writing is a fantastic way to get students to write more, and it helps build endurance and excitement for the written word.

Informal writing is a great tool for writers of all skill levels, and it doesn’t have to mean more work for you! In fact, I’ve had a lot of success with not grading informal writing for content, and just letting students use it as good practice. 

Today, I want to show you three ideas to get students to write more, including sharing free middle school writing prompts. These ideas all stem from my experience as a student, and have inspired the way I teach. What does that mean? Well, I wrote a massive amount as a middle school and high school student, so I try to share these same opportunities to get my own students to write more.

Informal writing is a fantastic way to get students to write more, and it helps build endurance and excitement for the written word. Here are three easy ways to get your students to write more and a freebie to get you started. (Blog post from Nouvelle ELA at the Secondary English Coffee Shop)

1. Shared Notebooks (metalogues)

My earliest experiences with a shared notebook was passing one around between our group of friends in middle school. We’d write notes, stories (I’ll admit – some of it was super dorky N*Sync fanfiction!), and personal thoughts on our classes and the day. We’d write during every free moment, and the best part was receiving the notebook to look at what others had written! (And no, this didn’t take away from our classes – we were all good students.)

In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, Christopher Emdin shares he uses Shared Notebooks in a more intentional way he calls metalogues. He carves out a portion of his class time and has students write and reflect about the lesson in a rotation with their metalogue group. He develops his middle school writing prompts around activities happening in class, so students are writing about learning. He uses this technique to solidify learned concepts (much like an Exit Slip) and foster classroom community. Students get to write for its primary purpose - communication - and develop skills and fluency in the process.

2. Personal Journals

I have kept a journal since I was eleven, and I remember writing in it several times a week as a teenager and in college. Lately though, I’ve really fallen out of the habit. I decided to make myself a 30-day challenge to get back into the groove. I designed the prompts to work in five minutes or less, and I incorporated a lot of “quick wins” for myself, like days where all I had to write was a “high” and a “low” from the day.

Well, this is totally something students can benefit from as well. They need to know that writing uses muscles (mental and physical), and that we need to build those muscles through daily workouts. Informal writing is a great low-risk way to get that workout in! I developed these middle school writing prompts from my own challenges to "workout" daily, and you can try a free week here. 

You can also visit my TeachersPayTeachers store and grab the full year of my 5-Minute Middle School Writing Prompts. These are editable and easy to implement, and they'll give your students that daily workout they need.

3. NaNoWriMo

Y’all, if you haven't tried NaNoWriMo, you should! Every November, writers of every caliber get together from all over the world to celebrate National Novel Writing Month. The premise is simple: write 50,000 words of an original novel in 30 days. You win honor and glory and bragging rights, and you will have done an awesome thing.

I first did NaNoWriMo when I was a freshman in high school, and yes, I finished! (I actually wrote fanfiction, but we won’t talk about that…) I did it completely outside of school and unprompted by my teachers, but I would have LOVED having it be a class thing. Now, I share it with my students and keep my running word count on the top of the white board.

Now, NaNoWriMo is a lot more popular (when I first did it, the website was terrible and didn’t even have a word count!) and there are many variations to make it student-ready for any level. Students can set any word count goal, and the Young Writers Program has a bunch of teacher resources available to you.

Also, you can share awesome Pep Talks with your students from professional writers who have been there and felt the pain and struggle of a first draft. Here’s John Green’s take on NaNoWriMo:

Carve out some dedicated writing time, and let your students show you what they can do! I promise, you won't be disappointed. :)

Informal writing is a fantastic way to get students to write more, and it helps build endurance and excitement for the written word. Here are some ideas and a freebie to get you started. (Blog post by Nouvelle ELA at the Secondary English Coffee Shop)

That’s it for me, folks! What are your favorite ways to incorporate informal writing in the classroom? Let us know in comments, or reach out on Instagram at @secondaryenglishcoffeeshop. We LOVE hearing from you!

Here are some other great resources for bringing more writing into your classroom:

Building Stamina and Skill (Blog Post by Room 213)
Video Journal Prompts (Resource by Presto Plans)
Growth Mindset Journal for Teens (Resource by The SuperHERO Teacher)
Career Writing Prompts (Resource by The Classroom Sparrow)
Classroom Community Bellringers (Resource by The Daring English Teacher)

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