Discussion Templates

Five things to say in a round-table classroom discussion.

I. Respond. "The single most important thing you need to do when joining a class discussion is to link what you are about to say to something that has already been said" (Graff and Birkenstein, 164).

Agree.  "Freida's point made the most sense to me."

Clarify.  "Can you say more about that?"

Agree with a difference or extend.  "I agree with you, Alex, and I would add . . ."

Disagree.  "I see it a different way." Never: "You are wrong."

On the rare occasions when you want to change the discussion, be explicit.  "Can we move on to the other document now?  We're running out of time." When you change the topic without saying that is what you are doing, your comment may seem irrelevant.  You may also steer the conversation back to an comment that was made earlier but was ignored.  "Could we go back to something Sami said a while back?  It seemed important but we never developed it."

II. Cite Text. "Students must not only read texts, but find things to say about them, and no text tells you what to say about it." (Graff, 9)

Use the text to support your claims and make sure your classmates can find the passage. "It's on page 73, at the bottom of the first paragraph."

Slow the conversation down and allow time for reflection by waiting until everyone finds the passage and has time to read it.  "Wait, I haven't found the quote.  Where was it again?"; "Can we read that out loud?"

Cite text to support or challenge another student's point.  "Good point, but the other document seems to contradict that.  Look at page 55."

III. Question. "If you ask questions, you may look stupid. If you don't ask questions you'll be stupid" (Lindsey Jordan)

Seek better understanding.  Be vulnerable. "I didn't understand Hamilton's financial plan. Could someone explain it?"

Seek information.  "Where does Jefferson say that?" 

Stimulate discussion.  "Which policy was better?"  "What was the cause?"  "Who was to blame?"

IV. Build Community.  "Distrust among the citizenry destroys the social fabric necessary for democracies to tackle pressing problems" (Hess and McAvoy, 110).

Draw out a quieter student.  "No, you go.  I've already spoken today."  "Jane, you look like you are trying to say something." See also, Helping quieter students.

Disagree in a civil way.  You can affirm good ideas even if you disagree.  "I can see why you think that, John, but I see it differently."  

Work collaboratively toward deeper understanding.  "Can you elaborate?"  "Yes, and also . . ."

IV. Use Metacommentary.  "Metacommentary is a way of commenting on your claims and telling others how--and how not--to think about them" (Graff and Birkenstein, 129).

Avoid misunderstanding.  "What Abdul is really saying is . . . "

Identify the larger significance.  "Here's why that's important."

Consider a different perspective.  "What if we looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Russian perspective?"

Point out subtle differences between similar arguments.  "I think Nash is actually making a different argument."

Express uncertainty.  "I could be wrong."  Use words that accurately convey your level of certainty: "perhaps, might, likely, possible."

Identify groupthink and play devil's advocate if necessary.  "We all seem to be in agreement.  Is there another way of looking at it?"  "We're all so liberal.  How would a conservative see it?"


Meg Foley, "Sentence Stems ... to Enter Discussion" (on her excellent blog on Harkness learning, Teaching Around the Oval: Thoughts and Resources on Harkness Teaching.

Gerard Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

Gerard Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say, I Say, The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  "Classroom discussion (or online communication) doesn't just happen spontaneously.  It  requires the same sorts of disciplined moves and practices used in m any writing situations, particularly that of identifying to what and to whom you are responding."

Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.

Lindsey Jordan, Phillips Exeter Academy, Class of 2017 (and my daughter).