Written Conversations

Written Conversations

From Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Harvey Daniels, Stephanie Harvey

Standards: W1, W4, W9, SL1

WHEN and WHY: Kids need to be discussing ideas all the time. But out-loud talk is not the only alternative. In this variation, kids hold a sustained silent discussion by exchanging a series of one-minute notes that are passed around a small group. This form of discussion equalizes air time, invites deeper thinking, and leaves tangible evidence of kids’ thinking.

INITIATE: Identify a debatable topic for discussion – maybe specific questions that have come up in inquiry groups, or a whole-class subject relevant to all. The best topics for written conversations are open-ended, with no right answer, have a value or interpretive or judgment dimension, and are subjects that reasonable people can disagree about.

TEACH / MODEL: Kids sit in their small groups and each writes his or her name in the upper-left-hand margin of a large piece of paper. Explain two rules:

“First be sure to use all the time for writing. I will tell you when to stop and pass your paper.”

“Second, don’t talk, even when passing notes. We want to keep all the energy in the writing. OK? Write for just a minute or so. Write your thoughts, reactions, questions, or feelings about today’s topic.”

Keep time by walking and watching. When most students have filled a quarter of a page, it is time to pass. This may be more like two or three minutes.

Pass your papers to the next person in the circle. Now read the entry on the page, and just beneath it, answer for one minute. Tell your reaction, make a comment, ask questions, share a connection you’ve made, agree or disagree, or raise a whole new aspect. Use all the time for writing and keep the conversation going!”

 Walk the room, looking over shoulders to get the timing right.

COLLABORATIVE PRACTICE: “Pass again, please.”

Repeat this process three or four times total. Kids read all entries each time and may respond to one or all. Since there will be more text on the page, allow more time for each successive pass.

“Now pass one last time, so that you get back the paper that you began with. Now read the whole conversation you started.”

As soon as kids are done reading and start talking, invite them to continue the conversation out loud. You can keep it open or announce a more focused prompt. To launch a whole group debrief, say:

“Will each group please share one highlight, one thread of their discussion? Something you spent time on, something that sparked lively discussion, maybe something you argued about or laughed about.”


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