Middle School teachers have employed a student-centered and owned teaching strategy in their classes that require the students to hone not only their listening skills but also their social-emotional ones. A “spider web” discussion is a team-oriented activity that poses a driving question or text with little interference from the teacher.
During Anastasia Quinn’s Form III class discussion of The Book Thief, she started the class with an appeal to the students, “Think about how you can check your emotions. Push yourself to do things that you wouldn't ordinarily do. Ask questions and stay involved.”
From that point, Quinn took a seat in the outer circle, notating the discussion among the students and the flow of information from student to student. One notices the give and take between students as they alternate speaking and asking insightful questions of one another to gain a deeper understanding of the work. Students located instances of foreshadowing in the book, probed why the author inserted the piece into that particular segment of the book and drew references and connections from other books they had read earlier in the year. Following the 20 minute discussion, the class reflected on their exchanges and critiqued what aspects of the class were positive and what areas needed improvement based on a rubric they had received earlier in the year.
Quinn said the students know that when they are assigned a reading, they come prepared to have a thoughtful conversation with their peers. While the discussion takes place, Quinn is actively listening to the exchanges and coding and mapping each individual student with a key to track the involvement of each one. The Middle School teachers apply the practice of coding developed by Alexis Wiggins who penned The Best Class You Never Taught. The codes range from insightful comment, connects to current text, distracted, interruption, and advances conversation and many more. After the discussion, the teacher emerges with a “spider web” schematic outlined on paper, empirical evidence of the flow of the class, where you can visually see who dominated the conversation and who remained silent.
Quinn said the coding is vital since many times patterns emerge from class to class, and you can give individual feedback to the student of his or her performance. The teacher can cite specific examples of where a student brought in textual evidence or where a student fell short with too many interruptions. By sitting down with each student, the student develops self-awareness of their behavior in the group and learns how to improve. In this particular class, one quieter student made an effort to add to the conversation, and another more vocal student tempered her involvement to allow her classmates more voice.
“This process gives you a way to have a conversation about an ethical process. You can see them in action, for instance, when someone is interrupting or creating a distraction. We will talk about how those actions might make a person feel that their voice isn’t important, and we'll examine the power dynamics at play. We want to develop an equitable class where everyone has a seat at the table,” Quinn said.
Quinn shared that the Middle School works hard to make all the students feel safe and embraced. As one of the school’s core values is risk-taking, the spider web discussion forces students to move out of their comfort zones. “We’ve had many conversations of students saying that they're afraid that their comments may be wrong. Another student will empathize and say that they felt the same way at one point but they worked through it.”
“Kids are learning a frame of mind, a lifelong skill. How do I prepare for conversations that treat other people with respect?” Quinn added.