Today was another in that long list of firsts that comprises the beginning of every school year. My students conducted their first Writers Read discussions. This is an assignment that my teacher-friend originated: each week we choose a focus, one that usually supports the craft or convention that we are working on in writing workshop. The students do a prep sheet, where they answer some questions about their independent reading and pull an excerpt from the text to support their ideas, then they use the sheet to guide their small-group discussions about their books.
This is why I was doing my research about questioning strategies yesterday. Sometimes, the students simply read their prep sheet to the group and proclaim themselves "done" (as in, hand raised, waving vigorously across the room for your attention, only to ask triumphantly when you finally do give them the nod, "What do we do when we're finished?!?"). Last year, I worked with our gifted resource teacher on ways to teach the kids to extend their discussions. We tried some ready-made question models. The results were mixed; some students genuinely rehearsed, and even implemented, higher-order questioning, and some picked questions at random to ask so that they could check that off their to-do list.
Today, I tried a different approach. First, I directed the groups to use a "spiral method" when presenting the thoughts recorded on their planning sheets to their group. Rather than reading through all the questions student-by-student, I asked them to paraphrase one answer at a time, one student at a time, with permission for the others to interrupt politely, should they have a question or comment. Our goal was conversation rather than presentation. In addition, I told them that their conversation had to go "off the page;" the prep sheet was just a starting point. These directions turned out to be a good place to begin-- I think they helped the students conceptualize the task more clearly than in years past.
I have a plan for supporting higher-level questioning in the next couple of sessions, too. I want to do it in context, so we're going to continue with this approach to the discussion, but with a few minutes of follow-up to ask the students to jot down which questions extended the conversation most. Then we'll take a look at those questions and analyze them together to figure out what made them so effective.
That's the concept, at any rate. We'll see how it goes.