Pass the Analytical Thread

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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So you have a book.  The content is great, the pedagogy is sound, the students have (wonder of wonders!) done the reading.  They’re in class, eyes bright, waiting for you to impart your hard-fought wisdom. You have maybe sixty seconds before you lose them to idle doodling and the cell phones you now wish you had banned. Go.

Of course there are exercises in your textbook, and of course you could give another lecture.  But today, that isn’t quite enough.  It’s early in the term and you want to be memorable, you want to keep those bright eyes interested. Most importantly, you want to hear their thoughts, to teach them to build off of each other’s ideas, rather than needing you to mediate each separate comment.

There are many ways to guide these sorts of discussions (quite a number of which are enumerated in Emily Isaacson’s fantastic post, here) but I thought I would share one that I have found to be fun and effective, particularly early in the term when the material is more introductory.  This activity could work for a variety of subjects, but I’m most familiar with English and Composition, so I’ll use those for any specific examples.

When I was younger, my friends and I had a game for when we were bored and waiting for something to happen, usually at the opening of a new movie or waiting for someone’s parent to come pick us up.  One person would start a story, giving a few sentences, and then stop, allowing the next person to pick up where they left off and continue the narrative.  This activity by itself could be a great icebreaker for a creative writing class, but I think it has some real possibility for larger classroom discussions in English, history, psychology.

Assign an order to your students.  If they sit in rows and columns, move down the rows, back and forth, so that every student knows who precedes them and who follows.  And, everyone knows that they will be called upon both to listen (so they can build off of earlier ideas) and to speak.

Ask the first student to make an observation about the reading, reminding them that all comments should be relatively brief.  The next student will build on that thought, deepening it or taking whatever tangents most interest them.  Not all thoughts bring great depth, however, and even those that could be explored at length are eventually exhausted.  If the student speaking doesn’t have anything else to add on the previous topic, they are responsible for introducing a new observation on the reading to begin the process again.

If you would like the activity to be a bit more guided, you can assign a topic to the first person, such as ‘character’ or ‘cultural significance,’ and see where the conversation leads.

While this activity won’t get you a deep, though-provoking discussion most of the time, it can be a great way to review material and is a certain method of keeping your students actively engaged.  This activity might be just what you need to get students talking – and listening – to each other, working together toward the common goal of understanding.

About the Author
A developmental editor at Macmillan Higher Education. I work in the English group.