Keeping it Civil: Tips for In-Class Discussions


One of my favorite quotes about the importance of education is:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson envisioned that public schools would be the means of educating “common people” about issues and the mechanisms of our republic as the means of “safe-guarding democracy.” Despite his elitist tone, I think he was right. In addition to social studies and civics courses our students also need to learn the skill of civil discussion about any topic. Regardless of where you stand politically, I think we can agree our public discourse has taken a turn for the worse (Todd Akin or Joe Biden anyone?). Even if this is an election year slump in civility, most students would benefit from a little extra training on how to speak their opinions with grace as well as substance. Here are five tips for running discussion in your classroom:

  1. Show students an example of what you expect in a class conversation BEFORE your first conversation: Teach a mini-lesson classroom discussion that includes an actual example. A great way to do this is to call 4 – 6 students in after/before school or during lunch and prep them on the norms you’d like to see in class discussions. Then have them talk about a non-academic topic as they model the norms of discussion (ex. Team Jacob v. Team Edward, best movie of the summer, best olympic sport, etc.). It might even be helpful to script a few “breeches” where a student yells, or interrupts, or doesn’t use an I statement, or makes an unsubstantiated claim, etc. so you can point it out to the class. Keep their discussion under 4 minutes or so and then show the clip in class when you teach the procedure for in-class discussions.
  2. Post norms for discussion on your wall: These could include 3 – 5 statements like “Respectfully disagree” or “Use I-statements” or “Back up your opinions with evidence” or “Listen carefully to the speaker and do not interrupt.” Whatever norms you decide on make sure you explain what they mean to your students. Here are my Collegiate Discussion Guidelines
  3. Give students sentence stems to ease them into a discussion: I give my students a whole list of sentence stems like “I agree with __ and I’d like to add . . .” or “I disagree with _, I think . . .” or “If you look at the text on page _, it says __. This makes me think . . .” and have them either tape the sheet into their notebooks or directly on to the desk. This way students have a quick reference during a discussion.
  4. Have students prepare to speak before the discussion through writing: This seems obvious but I have found student participation soars if I have them come to a discussion with prepared statements. These could be questions they want to ask, quotes from our text they want to point out, or pre-written opinions they want to read. This gives students an automatic entry to the conversation.
  5. Hold students accountable for their contribution to the discussion: When I have a classroom discussion, I often use the Socratic Seminar format (where I do not speak at all) and have students grade each other (I use socratic seminar scoring guide). A great way to start this off is to do a “Fish Bowl” where 10 or so students who are more outspoken beginning the conversation. They sit in a circle of desks in the middle of the class while everyone else watches them. Let them talk for 10 minutes and then have them switch out with a new group. Letting the talkative crowd blaze the trail has the added advantage of removing them from the more reluctant speakers’ group later on. If there are no talkers in a smaller group eventually someone will speak up! Don’t be afraid to let silence hang in the air. Eventually, they will talk! Sometimes it takes a couple of attempts but it happens. My colleague Jenny Corroy has students who struggle with shyness work with a classmate. The classmate will ask the shy student a predetermined and practiced question in a way that allows them to naturally contribute to the discussion (what’s up college readiness?). You could also draw names to get students started or use a ball and have students throw from speaker to speaker (again, teach those norms!)

I have also incorporated silent signals into discussions (a hand-signal for questions, agreement and disagreement) which allows more participation from the class. What other ideas/resources do y’all have around class discussions?


2 thoughts on “Keeping it Civil: Tips for In-Class Discussions

  1. […] Jenny’s amazing classroom tour. In fact, I’ve written about Jenny so much (here, here, here, oh and here) that it seemed like a natural next step to share this space with an educator with […]

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