English is a discussion-based class. I want students to interact with what we read and, ultimately, to craft their own interpretations. The class of my dreams involves discussion, debate, questioning, the great back-and-forth that leaves everyone leaning forward in their seat, their eyes completely alive.
But in almost every class, some students learn to lean back, allowing someone else to grapple with a particular concept or tricky passage. It’s easier, safer to listen. Truth be told, I’m like this too.
Although I regularly use small-group discussions, I also regularly use another tool: the two-minute rotating partner shareout. After grouping students in pairs, I’ll pose the question to discuss. Then, I announce, “You have two minutes to have a conversation. Go.”
It’s clear that everyone’s expected to participate. And the low lull of voices makes it safer for the introverted listeners, who often have great ideas that they hesitate to share. The time deadline, for some reason, makes it both more manageable and more urgent.
For this activity, I often choose questions I’m sure everyone can answer. With our current study of Camus’s novel The Stranger, I’ve asked, “Do you like the narrator and why does it matter?” or after a discussion of a chapter towards the end, “What, then, does Camus want us to think about judgment in society? Do you agree?” or “What do you notice about the first paragraph of the chapter?”
Then, after two minutes, I have students switch to a new partner. The new discussion prompt: either share exactly the same thing (the safe move) or share the great points that your previous partner made or share the direction your previous conversation went. You have two-minutes. Go.
Here’s why I like this technique: After four minutes, everyone has had a voice. Everyone has been forced (or encouraged :)) to share their interpretations. Everyone has practiced articulating the ideas bouncing around their brains. And it’s the rare student who remains tuned out in a partner discussion. Another bonus: students move.
And hopefully, those listening students will gradually gain more confidence in their ability to articulate their thoughts. Then, the next time we’re in the midst of a great class discussion, they’ll jump right in.