Meaningful Discussions with Nonfiction Texts

Guest teacher Sarah Cooper is standing, facing four students who are looking at her and sitting.

In this guest teacher post, Sarah Cooper describes how to motivate students to take ownership of their learning.

Participation has always been one of the most difficult things to assess and encourage for my 8th grade history students. Sometimes the quietest students in discussion are the most devoted in their writing, and sometimes the most vocal students are not aware of how their class participation affects others. Often, a few months in, I realize that a pattern has formed where a handful of students in each class dominate discussion, despite my attempts to cold-call in a sensitive way.

This year I’m going to try something new with my 8th grade U.S. history classes: to focus not solely on participation but on engagement, using guidelines that I will hand out early on and will ask students to reflect on in writing.

The engagement guidelines will include three major categories — all of which I hope will offer students more entry-points into the history and current events we study. For instance, by using CommonLit’s discussion questions, I hope to engage my students in richer conversations.

Here are the three major guidelines I will be giving my students to more deeply engage in class topics:

1. Make Mindful Contributions During Class Discussions

This category first focuses on how much people naturally speak, asking them to moderate and encourage themselves by asking students the following reflection question.

A chart that asks students if they are someone who likes to talk in class and gives suggestions for engaging in discussion.

It goes on to highlight the importance of students’ responses to the people around them, not just to me, with suggestions such as:

  • Listen to your classmates’ comments, even after you have already said what you want to say
  • Mention your classmates’ ideas in discussion to show how they influenced your thoughts

The guidelines also encourage students to think through what they want to say. This year, more than ever, I hope to preface discussions with quick-writes of three to ten minutes, depending on the topic — time for students to brainstorm their opinions.

Since students were given the time to reflect in writing, they will be prepared and come to the discussion with answers at the ready.

2. Make Connections, Lots of Them!

This second category moves beyond strict participation and into making text connections. Often, my favorite papers or projects link one realm of history to another, or an idea from another discipline to history. I encourage students to:

  • Reference a recent document or reading from our current unit
  • Connect something from your world or another class to what we are learning in history
  • Bring in an article, video, object, etc., that relates to what we have been studying

The first time I looked at CommonLit’s “Paired Texts” feature, which suggests texts from across time that relate to the one you’re reading, I actually gasped because the connections sang out so clearly!

For instance, in the Men and Women theme, I read Carrie Chapman Catt’s speech from 1917, which argued that “woman suffrage is inevitable.” Clicking on the “Paired Texts” for Catt’s speech led to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech from 1851 and Emma Watson’s “United Nations: HeforShe Gender Equality is for You Too Speech” from 2014, both of which I had used before in class. Looking at Catt’s speech side-by-side with Watson’s, students can trace the evolution of feminism over a century.

We could even use a less obvious document, such as Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” from 1894. With Chopin’s short story, students can internalize the expectations placed on women in the era just before suffragists began the final push toward the 19th Amendment.

With so many possibilities for text connections I believe my students will flourish in discussion.

3. Go Beyond the Assignment

Last year, a student sent an incredible Vox video link about the history of ISIS in six minutes that I showed in class the next day. Another student suggested a YA novel that changed the game for me and my students, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

This year, I want to encourage each of my students to take their learning beyond the classroom and the assignment at hand.

The suggestions I included in my guidelines are more idealistic than prescriptive. I’ll be interested to see how students react to criteria such as:

  • Read an article or watch a video clip related to your research topic because it sparks your curiosity
  • Find more sources than you need for a research project simply because you’re excited about the topic
  • Watch a documentary or movie (outside class) related to a topic we’ve studied

I do wonder, will overtly describing what this kind of “going beyond” looks like make students more or less likely to do it? Will they feel that I’m pushing them to fake enthusiasm in the name of engagement, or will this kind of encouragement inspire them to do more than they already would have done?

The question is open, and I can’t wait to see what happens!

About the Author:
Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is Dean of Studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. She is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5– (Stenhouse, 2009) and most recently of the forthcoming Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6–9