When my classes do a Harkness discussion, which is quite often, half of the class observes while half of the class discusses. The students who are observing fill out a form with their questions and observations of both the text and the discussion; this form counts for their observation grade. This year I have tweaked my observation form to a double-sided format.
Considerations and Concerns about Observations Forms 2012-2013
As I was revamping the form, I considered the following:
I want the students in the observation circle not only to be observing but also to be writing as if they were allowed to be part of the discussion.
I want to know what is going on inside the minds of the quiet students, so I want them to have a place to react to points and questions raised by the discussion circle.
I want there to be a place for students to raise questions and observations that the discussion circle does not have time to raise.
The observation circle can actually be quite frustrating for some students. I do not allow them to talk AT ALL. Not being allowed to speak is difficult enough for some students, but the frustration is heightened by a conversation for which every student has (ideally) prepared thoughts to contribute. Also, there is no way for a class to cover everything about a particular text in a 40 minute discussion; frequently at the end of a discussion day a few students will stop at my desk to share observations that they wish the discussion circle had covered.
Changes to the Observation Form for 2013-2014
The front of the form is now a two-column format:
One the left-hand side, the student records any interesting comments or questions they hear from the discussion circle.
On the right hand side, the student responds to these comments or questions with his or her own thoughts. This allows the observing student to “participate” in the discussion by interacting with the discussing circle.
Notice that I require them to use textual evidence to back up their assertions:
The back of the form contains two small boxes on top and one large box on the bottom:
A small box on the top left-hand side of the paper is where the students reflect on how the group is doing with the skills of discussion in general.
Another small box on the top right-hand side is where the student will observe an individual classmate. I assign each observer a classmate in the discussion circle. The observer critiques that particular classmate based on his or her participation.
A large box taking up a little more than half of the page labeled “Anything Else.” This box is for all those things that the observing student might have wished to say that the discussing circle didn’t talk about. Students should have more prepared than we can actually talk about, and this is where the student records evidence of that preparation.
I have been pretty pleased with these forms; they seem to have addressed some of the concerns I had about my previous versions. I feel like students have more of a “voice” in the conversation now.
Let me know any ways you have tried to adapt classroom discussion for large classes (or even small classes). If you try the observation, let me know how it goes!