If I told a student that I expected 45-50 minutes of sustained discussion in the target language they’d laugh and say no way. But I watched it today in my Grade 12 class – as students used the pretext of answering questions about a story they read to work in their “conversation circle”. This small discussion group activity produces some of the most relaxed and engaged interaction in my WL classroom. Not only that but students offer up a personal debrief afterwards – that I use to add to their oral communication marks.
Practice the “Art” of Conversation – Relaxed interaction is no accident. We practice the “art” of the conversation a lot in class. As my students know – it’s not the first question that you ask that is key – but rather the second and third follow-up question. Class often starts with an “ask” your partner based on some current area of study but students are expected at a minimum to use basic “who, what, when, where, why?” queries to learn more. All students have a ‘conversation’ sheet that they can refer to with suggestions for how to ask questions. When we debrief I often get asked for more “key phrases” and we add that to the sheet as we go along.
Select a Common “Piece” to Discuss – The pretext for the circle is always to discuss or review something. It can be the answers to questions about a story, as it was today, or even a review of some element of homework/classwork. The key is that there are questions/answers that can be used to get the talking started. I will give them the questions for the discussion and they have already had the opportunity to make notes on possible answers. (The key for me is “notes” and not full sentence answers). At the time of the “circle” they are given a new sheet with the questions on it and, in the lower grades, extension questions for the group. For example “What did Tarou get for his birthday” and the extended “What do you want/did you get for your birthday?” My Grade 12’s now naturally extend the task questions without my including them.
Students Know What They Are Aiming For – We look at the post-activity rubric before the activity. I ask my students to see what the “goal” is and to select just one area – one descriptor – as their ‘personal challenge’ for the time. If there is nothing on the rubric that the student sees as applicable then they can write in their challenge. One of my students, who speaks Japanese at home, wrote “I don’t want to dominate my group’s conversation”.
Set Out the Initial Groups But… I usually set the initial groups, looking for a mix of students in each – and sometimes for a group that may be supportive of a more hesitant speaker. Students are expected to sit in a circle and to work on good eye contact when they are speaking. They know that this activity is not to be raced through. After about 30 minutes I often ask them to find a completely new group and to ‘just chat’ – using the extension questions only.
Written Debrief Before Rubric – Students are asked to really think how things went, so I don’t let them race to the rubric at the end of the activity. Rather they go the reverse side and I ask them to answer one or two key questions. Today it was “what went well?” and “what was a particular challenge?”. Then once the personal reflective piece is done the rubric can be completed. Students understand that I expect them to carefully consider all sentences on the rubric and that they are not just to circle an entire “section”. They must justify what they pick.
My goal in the conversation circle is simple: using the TL to communicate beyond standard sentences to more meaningful conversation. The level of noise in the room is my key that this is working….more to come.