My Favorite Way to Get Students Discussing & Defending

Growing up, I was a little obsessed with lists, to the great annoyance of my big sister. A list was often the cause of vast stretches of silence during our family car trips. The preliminary back-and-forth went something like:

Amanda, reading Babysitters' Club #578 in the car.
Michael, not reading in the car (ya' know, motion-sickness): "So, whatcha readin' there, sis?"
Amanda: Sideways glance. Quick flash of the cover. Back to reading.
Michael: "Is that a good one?"
Amanda: "Yep."
Michael: "Like how good?"
Amanda, sensing me spiraling out of control: "Just good."
Michael: "Well, like is it better than the last one? I bet it's not better than the first one, is it? Would you put it in the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Wait, what are the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Could you rank them? In order, from one to ten please."
Amanda, eyes rolling: "No."

Read about a unique yet versatile way to engage students in discussion, where they develop and defend their opinions and analyze each others'. (from The Thinker Builder)
Okay, so maybe the list itself wasn't so much the cause of the sighs and ensuing silence as was the person trying to force said list onto the sister.

But there's just something about a good, ordered list that I enjoy. The 100 Greatest Hitters of All Time, the 25 Best Seinfeld Episodes, Top Vacation Spots on a Budget... whatever it is, I've always liked dissecting them, especially lists with an element of opinion.

Over the years I honed my craft, and as a teacher I began using my mad "list skills" to get students thinking critically, discussing possibilities, and defending opinions. A major part of my evolution from Annoying Little Brother to List Master Facilitator was reducing the list load from ten (or more) to just three... a top 3 list. 

A Top-3 List.

It sounds like such a specific, "maybe-I'll-use-it-once" idea, but actually it's super versatile. Any setting in which you ask a question, the potential for a top-3 list is there, lurking, waiting to pounce on your students and drag them into deeper waters.

Just so we're on the same page, let me give you an example of how to take a commonly asked question during a reading lesson and turn it into one that can spark a rich, powerful little discussion, all based on a top-3 list.

Did you see what happened there? We morphed a simple question (which has its place, sure) into one with layers and meat. Using a phrase like "most important" within a key question opens the door for opinion. It automatically encourages students to start mentally organizing characters based on their importance in the story.

When asked for only the single most important character, students can usually pluck one pretty quickly from the upper crust of characters (unless the story has two protagonists, like Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series for example, which would be an interesting mental decision). But when the question expands to asking for the top 3 most important characters, ranked in order of importance, the door opens even wider. And if you have students create their lists with a partner, the door pretty much gets blown off its hinges. The task...

...involves brainstorming and listing

Now with three answers needed instead of just one, students think more broadly about the possibilities, the characters in a book in this case. They think back through the book, maybe creating a list of choices from which to choose the finalists. They snatch up the main character or two, but must also consider several supporting characters for their remaining spots... better jot them all down for now.

...involves making (a lot of) judgments and decisions

Creating an ordered list, where the chosen order is up to students, requires lots of decision-making. For this question, which characters are more important than other characters? Who's not going to make the cut? And once the top three characters have been identified, who will rank higher and lower than each other? Who gets the top spot? Who gets number two and three?

...involves developing criteria and reasons

In order to make good decisions and judgments, students start to form criteria to help them choose (which may come naturally to some, and to others may take some prompting). This question is all about the importance of the character. So what factors matter? What exactly makes a character important? Is a bigger role proportional to a character's importance in the story? Does a character need to be part of every chapter to be considered? Does a character have to be "good" to be important? Should "bad guys" be considered? Can a character have a small but important role? Is there a character who appears less often but makes a big impact?

The criteria students value will give them a base for making the tough decisions in a thoughtful way.

...involves negotiation and reasoning

If students work with a partner to create their top three list, they'll be negotiating with each other on what factors matter most when making decisions, practicing key reasoning and compromising skills. The task consists of so many variables it's the perfect situation to involve another person. It's important, however, for students to look at their partnership like a single unit throughout the process, not one against the other, and save the debating for the whole class discussion.

...involves discussing and defending

Bring the class together after pairs have created their top three lists for a class discussion, and with only a few well-timed prompting questions, you'll find students motivated to take a stance, share and defend their opinions, analyze others' decisions, and even be open to revisions of their own. That last part can be tricky with questions that are more personal, like "What's your favorite...?", but our "What's the most important...?" question is one we can help students try to look at objectively, considering factors and criteria other classmates bring up during a discussion.

Here's one way to guide a discussion like this, using Charlotte's Web as a just-finished read aloud: 

So what do you think, boys and girls... who are the top three most important characters from our book, Charlotte's Web? Who'd like to share their list to get us started? (sharing) Okay, so tell us why you put Wilbur in your number one spot. (sharing) Who agrees with that? Raise your hand if you also have Wilbur as the number one most important character? Do your reasons match? What else makes Wilbur so important? (sharing)  

Not everyone has Wilbur #1, so who else? Charlotte? Why her? (sharing) Interesting. So let's dig into that more in a moment to see if we can decide who should be at the top of our list. But I'm curious: does everyone have Wilbur and Charlotte in their first two spots? (sharing)  

What about the third spot on your list? (sharing) Let's dig into Fern's situation more: if I asked for the most important characters from the first chapter, I think we'd all agree that Fern would be close to the top. But what about the story as a whole? How did you go about judging Fern's importance? (sharing) Let's discuss Templeton. How important is he? Whose list did he make? (sharing)  

Take a minute and talk to your partner about your list. See if there are any changes you'd like to make (talking). Now let's get back to the Wilbur vs. Charlotte discussion. Who really deserves the title of most important character? (sharing)...

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We've been working with the same sample question for awhile now, but many questions you ask during your reading time could be styled into a top-3 list.

With the question above, moving from the word "favorite" to "memorable" removes some of the subjectivity while keeping it an opinion-oriented response. Prompt students to think about what exactly makes a part "memorable" to them: action? emotion? a twist?

What about a top-3 list to go along with an informational book?

Here we move from a "check-up" style question that centers on what students learned about the topic of the text, to a question that centers less on the topic and more about determining the importance of each piece of information read. Prompt students to think about what makes a fact important. How closely should your chosen facts relate to the main topic? If you were asked for the three most interesting facts, how would your list change?

In my photos you may have noticed students working on half-sheet top-3 list response pages. Click HERE or the image below to download these pages for all three sample top-3 list questions from this post. (Yep, it's free.)

We've focused our top-3 list questions on reading topics, which is awesome, but I also expanded the idea into a morning work framework with some fun topics like, What are your top 3 dream jobs? and Who are the top 3 coolest superheroes?

The process students go through for each topic is broken up into bite-size chunks spread throughout the week, formatted as a presentation to display each morning, and with a student record sheet to go along. Click HERE to see details for Set One.

And if you like the half-page notebook style of the top-3 list freebie, you also might want to check out my popular "Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature." Click HERE for details.

If I were making a list of my top 3 favorite ways to get students discussing their thinking and defending their opinions, using top-3 lists would definitely be at the top of my list.

6 Tips to Give Feedback Like an Effective Coach

Read six tips on how to give effective feedback to students, all of which parallel how a great coach goes about coaching. (The Thinker Builder)My daughters are in gymnastics. We're not on the fast track to Olympic glory mind you, but they each have fun in their own little classes.

I was sitting in the stands with my wife the other day while our girls were out in their groups. I was watching my oldest work on her, um, half-pike saulter with a twist, or a spritz. Yeah that's it, a spritz.

Or something.

But then a little off to the side, in a separate group, I overhear, "Hmm, okay. Not bad. But you're sticking your chest out too far."

It's a coach working with three girls. My wife leans over and whispers, "They're on the team."

I nod. "Gotcha," I whisper back.

The 'team' is for serious, competitive gymnasts. But I didn't need my wife (a competitive gymnast herself growing up) to tell me that. It was pretty obvious. I mean, they were working on double-back Winnebagos and full aerial tuckers for crying out loud.

Or something. Something fancy.

But it wasn't the gymnasts' fancy gymnastics that caught my attention. It was their coach. And for the next few minutes I watched the coach do her coaching thing.

It may as well have been a PD session for teachers. Nuggets of teaching gold abounded, and I've pulled a few out here that center around feedback. So here are six tips on giving effective feedback to students, all stemming from my observations of the gymnastics coach working with her gymnasts.

#1 The Sooner the Better

The coach was right there on the mat with the girls, and as soon as a girl did a tumbling pass, the coach immediately gave feedback to her. The girls expected it. For some attempts the feedback took the form of a short phrase or tip, often relating back to something that particular girl has heard before. Sometimes the feedback was a hand or arm motion, and sometimes it was more interactive, but whatever the feedback was, it happened right after an attempt occurred.

Sometimes it's hard to give immediate feedback to students, especially if we're talking about feedback on written work that you are grading. But when possible, give feedback to a student as soon as possible, while the attempt is fresh. "Live," in-person feedback is even better because you can really get a sense of what the student was trying to do and carry the conversation to the next step. This can be done during one-to-one conferences and small group sessions especially, but also when your large group is working on a task, and you check in with a student or group here and there.

#2 Maintain High Expectations

These gymnasts were on the team, so they already had some serious skill. Everything they did looked great to me, but not everything satisfied the coach's expectations. One girl in particular, the one for which the coach's comments drew my attention in the first place, was working on the same skill several turns in a row. And it would have been so easy for the coach to eventually just say, "Good job," or move her on to a different skill, but she didn't. It was clear that the coach knew what the skill should look like and that the gymnast was ready for it. But the coach was not going to lower the standard, even if that meant changing how she instructed the gymnast several different times.

As a teacher, we also need to have high expectations, keeping in mind what's appropriate for our students. Setting the bar high can sometimes insinuate a fold-your-arms-and-stick-your-nose-up attitude, but just like the gymnastics coach did, you can set the bar high and then scaffold instruction to help reach that bar.

#3 Be Honest yet Constructive

The first piece of feedback I heard the coach give--"Hmm, okay. Not bad. But you're sticking your chest out too far."--is a great example of giving honest, constructive feedback. It was given in a conversational tone, but in a straightforward, clear manner. It was short and to the point: no beating around the bush.

Be real with students. They will appreciate your honesty about what they are trying to get better at, because they also know you will help them do it better. Being direct and honest with your feedback also will save you time! I know it can be more difficult with a student who is really struggling with something, but as long as your response includes something constructive, something that helps him/her move forward on the next attempt, then your directness will pay off.

#4 Get them to feel it

After two attempts at the particular tumbling pass, the coach changed her feedback strategy. She got in there with the gymnast, taking her arms into the correct position, placing a hand on her tummy, and even boosting the gymnast into the air midway through the next attempt so she could feel what it was supposed to feel like.

In the classroom, we often will follow up a feedback statement with modeling, like: "You didn't read it with expression. Here, listen to me read it... Did you hear the difference?" Sounds pretty effective, right? But I encourage you to go further than just modeling. What if the coach would have only done the tumbling pass herself as feedback, like: "There. See the difference, young gymnast?" The gymnast might have seen the difference, but that doesn't mean she could do it. By moving the gymnast's body differently, the coach helped her feel the difference.

So try to connect your feedback and your modeling with getting the student to feel it. Not in the same way as a gymnast, of course. Guide the student through another attempt, maybe like: "You didn't read with expression. Here, listen to me read it. Now read it with me. Match my voice... wait, did you hear that? My voice rose; your voice needs to rise too. Let's do that part again."

This type of feedback and subsequent guidance is really the essence of good coaching, isn't it?

#5 More encouragement than praise

Something I did not hear much from the gymnastics coach was praise. Not a lot of "good job" or "that was awesome." Instead, she encouraged. The difference? Praise is about what already happened. Encouragement is about what's next. Instead of praising a gymnast on what she just did, the coach pointed out what was correct or incorrect, in an honest, constructive manner (like we talked about in tip 3). She followed this up with a bit of encouragement for what the gymnast was to do next. "On the next one, really reach straight up. You can do it."

Giving too much praise can change students' mindset to one that simply tries to please you, instead of one that tries to grow and get better. But you can still be positive by encouraging students. An encouraging comment keeps you and the student moving forward, looking ahead with a positive attitude. Giving praise might feel very positive, but it can also form an underlying current of judgment. And we want to be more of a coach than a judge.

#6 See the Big Picture

For the entire time I watched, the gymnasts were working on only one skill. It clearly fit into a fuller, more complicated tumbling pass, which I assume fit into a complete routine. Though the coach was isolating a certain piece to improve upon, even I could tell there was a "bigger picture" involved by the way the girls entered and exited the tumbling pass. And it's this big picture that helped guide the coach's feedback.

When giving feedback as a teacher, keep the bigger picture in mind. It can help guide how you respond to a student's attempt. You know the stages of developing the skill, and where the skill fits into the scope of other connected skills.

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Students need feedback. And trust me, I know it's hard to feel like you're giving enough of it. But maybe instead of worrying about giving more, first try to make the feedback you do give more effective, maybe by taking a page from the gymnastics coach that I watched for a few minutes the other day.

Power of the Pause: Using Wait-Time to Push Students Deeper

Three effective ways to use wait-time to engage more students and get them thinking harder. You've heard about it.

Or read about it.

Or tried it.

Or brushed it off as a waste of time.

Or maybe even use it regularly.

What? you wonder.

...(I'm pausing here on purpose. Don't worry.)...

...(Getting a bit awkward, I know. Stay with me.)...

Wait-time. (See what I did there?)

Wait-time is giving students, particularly a large group of them, time to think before calling on someone to respond aloud. In my blog post on Ways to Get Kids Deeper Into Text, I call it "Pause with Intention." And now on the Upper Elementary Snapshots blog, I zoom in on this idea of wait-time and show you the power it can have on how your students think. I pair some simple techniques with that nice long paaaaaaauuuuuuse and look at the different effects it has on your class.

Come read about the "Power of the Pause" right... HERE.

Classroom Must Haves: Things I Can't "Picture" Myself Teaching Without

Guess what! I've joined the outstanding collaborative blog, Upper Elementary Snapshots! I've admired this blog since its beginning and I'm really excited to contribute. Plus, I'll still be blogging here at The Thinker Builder, too!

The bloggers at Upper Elementary Snapshots are teaming up to share some classroom must-haves. You know, things we can't "picture" ourselves without. (Get it, picture... Upper Elementary Snapshots... clever, huh?)

Plus, be sure to read to the end of the post to see how to collect lots of "Must Have" freebies!

Here are a few of my classroom must-haves:

One-Touch Power Stapler

Sure, the school workroom has some big honkin' staplers, but the year I splurged and bought a power stapler, well, my life changed.

I became a full-fledged stapling ninja. No more jams, no more treks down to the workroom to staple a booklet or a packet. I just pulled out my One-Touch Paper Pro and went to it. (I also may or may not have feigned super-human strength to my class by stapling a dozen pages at once using only my pinkie finger.)

This compact, 15-sheet capacity Paper Pro Stapler you see below has some fun colors! 
*affiliate link

The power stapler... it's a game-changer.

Lawn Boy  by Gary Paulsen

I almost went with Because of Winn Dixie for my choice here. (Love that book, but you probably live under a rock if you don't already know about Winn Dixie.) Lawn Boy, however, you might not know as much about.

Lawn Boy is fuh-nny. Like really funny. It's a departure from Gary Paulsen's nature-driven earlier books, like Hatchet, yet still such an entertaining read aloud, and always a student favorite.
*affiliate link

It's the story of a kid who "inherits" his grandfather's old riding lawnmower and begins mowing his neighbors' lawns, soon finding himself waist-deep in the "beauty of capitalism" (as his hippie stockbroker would say).

I always read Lawn Boy during or after our Economics Unit because it's such a fun way to put the concepts and principles we learn into a context students can relate to and understand.

Reader's Notebook for Informational Text

My reader's notebook resources are lifesavers. I'm not in the classroom this year, but when I was, I used these Response Pages for Informational Text ALL. THE. TIME (as well as my Response Pages for Literature). They are versatile, differentiated, and with a "snappy little notebook" design, kids think it's fun filling them out.

The pages so easily align to the curriculum and Common Core standards I already had to teach, and they include three levels of differentiation so I could meet the needs of all my students.

The resource includes response pages on recording facts and information, interpreting ideas, summarizing and synthesizing, vocabulary, text features, text structures, note-taking, and an entire research-guide component.

Click the image above for details!

Story Starters {Not Your Ordinary Writing Prompts!}

My story starters are a go-to resource to get students writing, and writing a lot. With each story starter I created, my underlying goal was to give the student who reads it the undeniable urge to finish the story. To be unable to walk away. To be inspired enough that he or she simply must write the rest of the story.

Juices flowing, wheels turning, synapses firing, eyes darting all over... I've seen that look in students' eyes after hearing or reading one. Here, see for yourself...

Doesn't that make you want to go write? Yeah, me too!

The laundromat photo in the Freebie includes three completely original, engaging story starters, plus a set of open-ended prompting questions. It comes in multiple formats, and includes fun writing paper too!

You can see my full line of story starter sets, one for each month, right HERE. Each set includes 10 photos and a total of 40 prompts. Or look into the full-year bundle right HERE.

Click the image below to download Freebie from my TeachersPayTeachers store!

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After you've downloaded my Story Starters Freebie above, be sure to visit each of the blogs below to add 12 more FREE RESOURCES to you own collection of things you can't picture yourself teaching without. Afterwards, swing by our collaborative blog, Upper Elementary Snapshots, for lots of great content and ideas you can put into practice in your own classrooms!

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