Thinking Routines for Authentic Discussion

I used to provide discussion questions for my students.  I would spend time thinking about book-specific questions that I could ask, questions that I thought would prompt complex discussion and make them really think about the text at hand.  Sometimes, they did have really complex discussions, and I’m sure they spent time thinking about said text.  But the discussion wasn’t as authentic as I wanted it to be, because I was telling them what to talk about.

Now, there are always going to be things that we want students to talk about, and there’s a time and place for helping them understand things about a book that they might not have discovered for themselves.  When I want my students to discuss a book–not necessarily analyze the book, but discuss it, I now have a different approach.

Last summer, I took a class with Vicki Vinton at the New Hampshire Literacy Institute.  It was a career-changing class in that it completely changed the way I thought about reading instruction.  One of my biggest takeaways from Vicki’s class was the idea of thinking routines.  Thinking routines are just that–routines of thinking that, in this case, readers use to help them understand a text.

Now, when we’re starting a whole-class novel, I introduce students to the “Know/Wonder” thinking routine/chart.  We read a page or two and then pause to talk about what we now know about this character’s life and situation, and also what we’re wondering about.  This isn’t a structure we use explicitly throughout the entire reading of the book (I combine the Know/Wonder chart thinking routine with the reading signposts for literature from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst), but that simple thinking routine does a few things for us as a community: 1) Grounds us in what we already know; 2) Helps us to differentiate from what we really know and what we just think or wonder about; 3) Gives students a non-threatening way to ask questions (wonderings) where they can’t really be wrong, which in turn makes our classroom environment much more of a risk-taking zone.

Letting go and handing the title of “question master” over to my students wasn’t easy.  It’s not easy to hand over that control and trust your students–kids who you see forget something two minutes after you said it, or interrupt the flow of your lesson with “Can I go to the bathroom?” as an answer to your question–is scary.  But they’re up to it.  I’ve found that when I give them the power, they will inevitably surprise me.

From there, discussion is easy.  Once they are familiar with the thinking routine and have had a chance to see how it works, it’s a simple “with your groups, talk about what you already know about this book and what you’re still wondering.  See if you can work through some of the confusion that you may be having” direction and they’re off.

In my English 10 classes right now, we’re reading American Street by Ibi Zoboi.  Through the know/wonder thinking routine, my students have had real and authentic discussions with each other about foreshadowing, characterization, and cultural differences.  They haven’t named those things yet, but they’ve discussed it, and they own it so much more than they would have had I asked, “What characterization do we see in Chapter 2?” or “What examples of foreshadowing do you see in Chapter 3?” Instead, they bring these things up because they are genuinely curious, and they notice more, sometimes, than I do!

On Tuesday, my English 9 class was supposed to finish Dear Martin by Nic Stone together in class.  I said something like, “Today is an exciting day!  We get to see how the book ends!” and a student responded, “Um, I’m pretty sure we’ve all finished it already…we know how it ends.”  This level of student engagement is largely due to Nic Stone’s writing and the engaging/relatable story that she gives us with Dear Martin, but I have to believe that the thinking routines also helped them to drive forward and have a more nuanced appreciation and wonder for the events that were unfolding as they turned each page.

I know that the thinking routines helped us today, as we had our book-end socratic seminar.  In the past, I had specific questions students had to choose from to answer for socratic seminar pre-work, questions that then became the very linear structure of our class conversation as they moved from one pre-determined question to another.  I still have students do some pre-work (I like to have some written evidence of their thinking and understanding of the book), but the questions are more general–things like, “What was your favorite part of the book? Why?” or “What do you think Nic Stone might be trying to tell the readers about life?” (another phrase I stole from Vicki that helps readers think about theme in a more complex way) or “What moments do you think were most significant in the book? Why?” and the last one — “What questions do you have for discussion? What things are you still wondering about?”

Some students used these questions as their own during the socratic seminar, but most of them took their answers to that last question–their own authentic questions–and used those as the launching point for one of the most organic and authentic book discussions I’ve had the pleasure of watching unfold.  There were still things that they could work on (they’re freshman, after all), but the questions that they asked (Do you think Justyce deserved to get Manny’s watch? Do you think Jared and Justyce will be friends now?) were questions they genuinely wanted to know the answers to, and their discussion was better for it.

There’s a lot about my teaching that has changed since I started teaching, and I’m sure my approach to student-centered and student-led discussion will continue to evolve.  I’m excited for that to happen, and I welcome that process.  For today, though, I’m proud of the conversation my students were able to have–partially due to a book that they were interested in and partially because I trusted them to have the conversation they needed to have.  It was worth it.

3 thoughts on “Thinking Routines for Authentic Discussion

  1. Reblogged this on To Make a Prairie and commented:
    This week, as I recover from jet lag, I’m sharing a blog post by one of the amazing students I had at UNH’s Summer Literacy Institute last year. Here Megan beautifully captures what can happen when we shift our teaching focus from seeking answers to thinking and hand over the role of “question master” to students.


  2. First off, let me tout Vicki Vinton in general for trusting students to be able to think—and for sharing this post through her blog. Thank you also, Megan, for bringing the UNH Summer Literacy Institute to a wider audience. My sessions there have immeasurably informed my practice, particularly the teachings of the “Toms,” Romano and Newkirk, Linda Rief, Lisa Miller, Ralph Fletcher, Don Murray…the list goes on. (I’m only sorry I moved West before Vicki Vinton!) Finally, that you are reading such contemporary and rich YA offerings as Nic Stone’s Dear Martin and Zoboi’s American Street with high school students restores my faith in high school generally. (I also hope you’re an ALAN member; the organization could use you.) I so appreciate your post.


    1. Thanks for your kind words! I attended my first ALAN conference this year, and it was surreal. I’m just getting started on my summers at UNH, and I think “immeasurably informs my practice” is already a great description of my time there. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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