Generating Ideas, Group work, Metacognition & Assessment as Learning, Oral Language

Accountable Talk in the English Classroom: Fishbowl Discussions

Although class sizes keep increasing, class participation in discussions can still remain small, especially at the beginning of the semester.

I work on creating a safe environment that encourages participation through pre-class discussion work (think/pair/share and group discussions) so students have already thought/talked through their ideas before sharing with everyone.

The problem: keeping students accountable and ensuring they all participate when there are 30 of them or you need to access their oral language skills.

The solution: using a fishbowl discussion which makes all students responsible for their own participation and supports them in encouraging participation from others. Although fishbowl discussion are normally done with controversial/debatable content, it can be effective in an analysis discussion as well.

The situation: I did this at the end of the short story unit and used two stories we had been working on throughout the unit. It did double duty as the oral language assignment and test review. But this activity could be used for any content.

This is how it works:

1.Dividing up the Students

Start by dividing the class into two halves (30 students = 15 students each). Each half will be assigned a different text (short story). The first half will discuss their story while the second half will evaluate the discussion.

Pair up students from each half and have them peer evaluate each others discussion participation.

For each half, divided the students into groups (6 groups with 5 members). Have each group focus on a different big idea (a different short story term)

2. Generating Content

Decide how students will generate content for the discussion (research, guiding questions etc..). All students should take notes to be used during the class discussion.

My students have been working on, and discussing, the two stories with their groups throughout the unit. Given that they know the stories pretty well they need little guidance. They are given a topic (short story term) to discuss and use it to generate discussion points (define terms, find examples, explain the significance of the term).

I also taught students how to ask higher order thinking questions and had them create questions about their assigned topic, had them make connections (to self, text, media and world) and share inferences.

The group should divide the content that they have generated between the group members so that each students has specific items they should cover during the discussion.

3.Establishing Discussion Procedures and Norms

Students need to be taught how to respectfully participate in a discussion. Discuss what a good discussion looks like and establish discussion procedures/norms:

  • respect means treating others the way you would like to be treated
  • everyone is expected to participate in a meaningful way
  • speak loudly enough so that everyone in the class can hear you
  • be open to sharing your ideas, even if they are controversial
  • take risks and dig deep for meaning
  • make connections and use evidence to support your opinion: from the text, other texts, your life or the real world
  • listen actively: nodding, eye contact, and leaning forward (be aware of your non verbal as well as oral communication)
  • respond carefully and respectfully, use conversation stems to agree, disagree and/or add new ideas
  • collaborate don’t compete: critically thinking about and digging deeply into the text to find meaning is a team effort

Provide students with accountable talk stems that they can use to add new information, agree/disagree, seek clarification, paraphrase or rephrase information. to be used during the discussion.

4. Classroom Setup

There are different ways you can set up the class:

Option one: move all desks to the sides of the room and put chairs in two concentric circles. The talkers (the people in the fishbowl) are situated in the small middle circle and the observers and evaluators are situated in the large outer circle (see diagram below).

Option 1: two concentric circles

Option two: move desks into three concentric squares. This allows students to use their desks to take notes or refer to their notes and textbook. I put 4-6 talker desks in a square facing each other in the middle, line up the observer desks around this square and then line up a third square around this one for the evaluators (see picture and diagram below).

Example of option 2 setup

In either option I have students sit with their groups.

5. How it Works

Round 1: The first half of the class will discuss their story. One person from each short story term group will sit in the middle of the class (the talker seats). The observers are taking notes of the discussion and noting down ideas that they can use when it is their turn. The evaluators access their assigned peer’s participation in the discussion.

Students are told they may leave the circle once they feel they have run out of things to say. When they go back to their seat another person from their group comes to the middle and takes their talker seat. I put on a timer for 5 minutes to ensure that no one is left in the talker seat for too long. You can have them decide on a talker order before the activity or have it work out organically.

If this is the first time doing a fishbowl I help the students do the first round(s) step by step. Once they know the procedure I step back and stay out of the discussion (unless absolutely necessary, such as in the case of inappropriate comments or responses).

I have the accountable talk stems and a list of things they can talk about (connections, inferences, questions) projected on the board. I also write areas from the conversation that I feel they can push to deeper analysis or questions that I have about their discussion on the whiteboard as I listen to them talk. Observers can use these to prompt discussion when they enter the conversation.

If this is being accessed as an oral communication assignment I track their participation using a tracking sheet, make comments and a access them on a rubric (see above link for the handouts).

Once everyone has had a chance to talk, we debrief and discuss any areas that require more discussion. Talkers and observers do a self evaluation. Evaluators complete their evaluations and give them to their peers. We also discuss what went well and what we need to improve next time.

Round 2: We do the same process for the second story.