Seven seventh grade readers are sitting together at the center of the classroom revisiting the scene in The Outsiders where the greasers are getting ready for the rumble. It’s their first fishbowl, and they are the fishes. As the fishes reread and formulate their responses, twenty-two students outside the circle are already blogging their thoughts.
“Um, I think Ponyboy is happy because he was just told that he was allowed to go to the rumble,” one student says.
“I agree with that because, um, for example, Soda and Steve were doing cartwheels off of the front porch showing excitement,” another student says.
“But before that, the greasers were all getting ready for the rumble. Why were they worried about what they looked like?” one student asks.
One boy flips over his paper looking for a note he made. Then, he jumps into the conversation: “Yeah, that’s where there was a word I wanted to ask about. What is ‘spruced up’?”
“They’re preparing for the fight, the rumble. ‘Sprucing’ means extra grease in their hair to show they are greasers,” the girl sitting next to him answers.
“Maybe they want to show the Socs that they can look cleaner so the Socs can’t judge them,” he responds.
Another student raises his hand briefly and then just jumps into the conversation: “Getting ‘spruced up’ means to make them look cooler because the Socs are the nicer dressed ones, and the greasers have to have their own identities to represent themselves.”
The final word on this questions comes from one girl who was observing the conversation up until now: “Or like people get dressed up to go to a dance? Maybe the rumble is like their dance — only there everybody hates each other and somebody might die. Can I ask the next question?”
Bringing teen readers to the point where they can facilitate their own discussions is a process. While the above conversation may seem magical, I assure you, it took careful planning and time to bring students to the point where they could really get into interpretation and meaning-making without a teacher (and in front of their peers).
Within a week of meeting each other, we were having low-stakes discussions about our reading experiences. The first week of school, I got books into the hands of students — their choice — and made time each day to read. And then that Friday, they were having very informal conversations about their books. The first week, I gave students a list of topics: talk about the subjects in your book (friends, family, grief, war, love, power); talk about the character’s personality. The second week, I asked them to come up with some questions: would you be friends with your character, do you like your book, what’s your favorite part. I also introduced students to Word PEACE — to help them be more conscious of the discussion process. I wrote about this here: Small Group Discussions and Self-Assessment.
When we were ready to move into our shared text, The Outsiders, I knew students had a good foundation for discussion and now just had to add the text-based questions and responses, which we couldn’t really do when everyone was reading a different book.
For the first six chapters of The Outsiders, I did what Kelly Gallagher calls a “guided tour,” which means that we read the book one chapter at a time and practiced specific skills: writing a concise summary, analyzing denotation and connotation, tracking the development of classism.
By chapter seven, most students were ready for a “budget tour,” so for chapters seven through ten, I was more hands-off and went into observer-mode. I created a very basic form to guide their independent reading: Text-Based Notes and Questions. I wanted to see how students practiced the skills on their own. During quiet reading time, I conferred with students about their notes and checked for their summarizing, vocab meaning-making, and questioning related to classism.
A fishbowl discussion is, essentially, a group of students having a discussion while the other class members listen in and observe but do not interject. By rotating the “fish in the bowl,” every voice can be heard without any one individual or group carrying the responsibility of meaning-making; this makes space for more and diverse ideas to come to the surface.
To prepare for the fishbowl discussion, I divided the class into four groups — one group for each chapter. Then, I modeled how to write text-based questions using sentence stems (Text-Based Notes and Questions). I explained that when posing questions about a text, we have to help our group members go to the page, understand what’s going on, and grasp the question we are asking before a deep discussion can happen. The templates on the reference sheet help students to meet the three parts of an effective text-based question for discussion.
As you may have noticed in the discussion excerpt at the beginning of this post, students were posing questions related to the skills/thinking we practiced when we read chapters 1-6 together. They asked questions to work through the denotation and connotation of “spruced up” in a pretty sophisticated way. They were also tracking how tensions related to class were heightening at this point of the story.
I organized the discussion into four rounds of seven minutes. For example, round one was chapter seven, so students who wrote questions for that chapter jumped into the fishbowl. There was only time for each student to ask one question, and follow-up questions developed to take the place of the pre-written ones. Students were pulling in features of Word PEACE by clarifying responses, building on ideas, attending to the speaker, and using academic language to discuss the scenes (e.g., character, conflict, class, simile, author’s purpose). No fish was going to drown in this fishbowl.
While the fish were talking, the students outside of the fishbowl needed something to do to engage them and help them process the meaning of the chapter. In the past, I had discussion partners, whereby a student on the inside was paired with a student on the outside to observe their discussion skills. However, because each student has a Chromebook, I thought we could set up a discussion thread on our blog and have students respond virtually to the fishbowl questions using a Twitter format, e.g., “7@Julie” would indicate a student was responding to Julie’s question from chapter 7.
This is magical, right? Yes, but not magic. It is just what teachers do every day. A lot has to be in place so that teachers can get out of the way for students to grapple, discover, lead, learn without the teacher. And on days like this, when no fish drowns because all the fish are working together to make meaning and encourage one another, well, we see what’s possible in education and life. (Okay, maybe there is a little magic.)