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Conversation Challenge: an Efficient, Simple Small-Group Discussion Strategy

By Dave Stuart Jr.

A Video Guide to Conversation ChallengeWhen I want every student to speak in a capacity more involved than Think-Pair-Share yet more efficient than pop-up debate, I tend to use something I call Conversation Challenge.

Conversation Challenge is simply a way of framing small group discussions. Instead of only saying, “Discuss [insert prompt here] about [insert text here],” I add one additional structure: each group’s objective is to keep the discussion going for the full X minutes they’ll be given. (Typically, X = 4 or less for my ninth graders.) Also, every student must speak at least one time.

Video of a recent Conversation Challenge in my classroom

I think it’s useful to see what we’re talking about, so below, you’ll find a Conversation Challenge that took place in my classroom last week.

Here’s some additional context for you:

  • This is my last 10 minutes with my students for the week, and I’m using the time to have students discuss the Gallagher-esque article of the week that they received on Tuesday. (Video of me introducing that article, along with more classroom example videos of article-based lessons, can be found in Part III of the Teaching with Articles Workshop.)
  • It’s February, so at this point students are quite familiar with how Conversation Challenges work — yet, perhaps like your students, I find that many of my kids still struggle to carry conversations on topics they don’t choose.
  • This is the first time we’ve had a small group discussion on the primary races. (Therefore, even though the structure of Conversation Challenge is familiar to them, the content of this particular challenge is new territory.)

Here’s the video: (click here if you don’t see it below)

Why use Conversation Challenge?

Here’s why I let this strategy into my very limited repertoire:

  • It’s much quicker than pop-up debate, yet more formal than Think-Pair-Share. I needed a middle ground between those two things.
  • It gives my students a different way to exercise speaking/listening autonomy than pop-up debate does.
  • The time element gives my kids a clear understanding of what it looks like to “win.”
  • Finally, the efficiency of Conversation Challenge means my kids will get lots of reps overcoming conversational weaknesses they may have.

Questions? Feel free to ask in the comments.

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10 Responses to Conversation Challenge: an Efficient, Simple Small-Group Discussion Strategy

  1. Todd Finley March 1, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    I like that you are not using a specific formula for the discussion, and that you are emphasizing transfer. I’ll be showing this video to my preservice English education majors. Thanks, Dave.

    • davestuartjr March 1, 2016 at 11:55 am #

      Thanks so much, Todd! Yes — trying for transfer. Trying!

    • mainsensei May 27, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

      While I agree that “specific formula” approaches can make for very canned conversation, I think that before we can transfer, the kids need a period of scaffolding. What does that support look like with the 4 minute challenge?

  2. MMurrayELA March 1, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

    YES! I am planning to do something similar with 6th graders for the first time this week, and I was completely in the dark on how to do it effectively. Thanks for the model! 🙂

  3. Tony Signore March 2, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    I like how your video includes real time of this process. You can see that it works for some students and not for all, just like in a real class. So many times videos of kids working show ALL of them happily attentive and completely engaged. Always makes me wonder how many times they had to record the activity. You are not afraid to show the bad with the good. And isn’t that what teaching is? I will try this with my 8th graders, maybe adjust to a 3 minute challenge.

    • Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) March 2, 2016 at 11:52 am #

      Tony, thank you very much for your comment — I get the same feeling with classroom videos. Kids and teachers have good and bad days; I also like how, in the video, my own speaking can use some work. That is exactly what teaching is — everyone growing, and that growth being imperfect.

  4. Darlene Farrace-Prott March 4, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    I appreciate the live video of what actually occurred in your classroom. I’m happy that you mentioned it only took 10 minutes. I’m happy that you allowed us to view it with some flaws. I am most happy that you addressed the need for instructions in going along with creating successful conversations with the students.

    I would love to see that same group being videotaped once again a few weeks from now. It would really show the evidence of their growth in content, conversational strategies and volume!

    Thank you,

    Darlene

  5. Judy March 4, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    Thanks, Dave. As usual, I find your work with students and teachers extremely valuable.
    This article and video (and the responses from readers) got me thinking. I wonder if our kids have any idea what an intellectual, thoughtful, articulate, meaningful, natural, academic discussion looks and sounds like. I use model essays in my room all the time to show students what they should be aiming for. Perhaps a video clip of a model discussion (between young & hip people with street cred) would help my students see the goal and help them work toward it.
    Thank you for inspiring me!

    • mainsensei May 27, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

      This totally follows along with Dave’s previous post about exemplars! Well done, Judy, for making that connection to conversation and how we could use video for examples of that. So many times when I listen to discussions on the radio (ex: NewsHour Friday Roundup), I think of how they use so many of the strategies that we want our students to use: sharing the air, paraphrasing and connecting, supporting comments with evidence, etc. I’m tempted to try using that for my “highly capable” students as an exemplar (they’re a little more flexible about patiently listening to people in suits talk). But I wonder what I could use for my hipper, more demanding, less-interested-in academics-and-intellectual-conversation-type kids. Then again, to some of my students, Dave’s kids kinda look as foreign as the newscasters on PBS, as far as they don’t represent my students racially or culturally…

  6. mainsensei May 27, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    Hey, Dave! How are you scaffolding the kids to overcome those awkward pauses, etc? (You know, all those conversational difficulties you listed: convo hog, shy people, “we’re done” moments…) Is it a sort of “sink or swim” approach where they just endure it until they solve it, or are you offering–I dunno–sentence stems or some kind of strategy they can turn to while they are learning to internalize this kind of convo? Somehow, I feel as though you might not be a fan of the ol’ sentence stem approach. While I LOVE this kind of organic instruction, I find that my students often need a little push to get them over the hump of obstacles in conversation. The kicker is, I am still searching for exactly what that push might be.
    Thanks for (another) great article!

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