Scaffolding Small Group Discussions

Incorporating EdCafes into your classroom provides students many opportunities to participate in small group discussions. Because the structure invites them to be consistent participants and regular leaders, students are able to practice multiple roles in the discussions they attend. As a teacher, you have an ongoing practice that helps you establish community, work with small groups to push their thinking, and support individual students in their lines of inquiry.

Here are some questions you may have, and if you have ones for me to add, tweet me at @katrinakennett.

What discussion norms are helpful to start with? 

EdCafes are a natural vehicle for talking about discussion norms in your classroom. To start, you might build a group conversation based on their experiences (even kindergarteners have had group discussion experiences) – what are ‘take aways’ they have had from other class discussions? What works for them, and what doesn’t? Why is that? What can they suggest to make discussions safe, democratic, challenging, and dynamic? Establish a set of ‘do’ statements (Be Respectful, Listen to Each Other, Use ‘I’ Statements, Connect to What Others Have Said, etc.).

Then, start small. After a round or two of EdCafe discussions – especially if you notice a pattern (positive or unconstructive) – take a pause for the day. Debrief with the class: what is working well? What might need to change? Listen to them and share your observations, connecting things they may not have yet. As with building general classroom norms, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them.

How do you help students construct the content of the schedule? 

You will also develop norms for what goes in the schedule. As the teacher, one choice to make is about the ‘anchor’ of the EdCafe schedule. Will the session ‘titles’ be framed as questions? Will they be important quotations from the text? Will they be thesis statements? Will they be connections to pop culture? Or, any/all of the above?

This norm might also evolve (it’s hard to start a unit with ‘thesis statements’ as the prompt!). As students become more adept at EdCafes and familiar with what products are expected, you might be able to say ‘post whatever is going to help you accomplish your purpose here.’ On the Frankenstein EdCafe schedule, you can trace the development of paper topics that students generated.

How can I support discussion leaders to prepare? 

One way to support discussion leaders is by asking them to prepare some introductory notes. These notes can be flexible – the purpose is that they can start the conversation and keep it going. To do so, they might write down quotations, questions they have, some connections they have made. Remind them that this requirement is in service of their preparation – backed up by your gradebook perhaps – but that it’s purpose is beyond you and for the conversation itself.

How should I redirect an off-topic group?  

When walking around and listening / participating in the small group discussions, some will invariably get off topic. Instead of redirecting the whole group (re-establishing you as the authority), turn to the discussion leader and give them the language to get the group back on track.

  • Have you touched on all the questions you brought in yet?
  • What was a point someone made that you might return to?
  • Have you had a chance to hear from everyone yet?

And then, as they take the reins, walk away. This is an important shift to helping students become peer leaders, as it helps give the language of leadership and helps them re-direct their peers, not relying on you to do so (you can only be so many places at once!).

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