Alexis Wiggins, author of the November 2014 Educational Leadership article “Spinning the Web,” discusses how she dealt with a challenge when incorporating what she calls Spider Web Discussion in her classes.
In my November EL article, I describe how I got students to participate in academic conversations with minimal involvement from me using the Spider Web Discussion method. I find that most teachers who try Spider Web Discussion are surprised and happy with the results. Students really do seem to enjoy the intellectual freedom and exchange of ideas, even as they feel challenged by the insistence that everyone pursues equal participation, which requires some students to hold their tongues and other students to speak up more.
But sometimes a class or group holds unique challenges. One of the most difficult roadblocks I experienced happened a few years ago when I was teaching four sections of a 9th grade English course. Three sections were doing phenomenally well with the discussions, but one section—a group of predominantly Korean students who were less accustomed to or comfortable with speaking up or challenging others’ ideas—was flopping. They went for weeks with painfully fractured, silence-filled discussions that never seemed to go anywhere and left all of us feeling frustrated, despite lots of debriefing and strategizing. The weeks turned into months, and it was suddenly March; the students were still struggling. In my other three classes there was lively discussion, growth, deep digging for insights, and lots of laughter. But in this class, it seemed like the students would rather have a root canal. Their discussions had improved, but they just couldn’t seem to turn the corner from OK discussions to great ones.
Around that time, I gave a presentation on Spider Web Discussion at a regional conference and spoke openly about the challenges. An audience member asked if I’d ever broken them into two simultaneous discussions. I was intrigued by this suggestion; the next week, I broke the 22-student class into two groups of 11 and bounced back and forth, listening to both groups as best I could. Immediately the vibe was different. It was electric. Everyone spoke. Students were laughing, engaging and challenging one another, and pushing the boundaries of thinking. Elated, I asked the students what had made the difference. One girl replied that it was just easier without so many eyes on her at once.
I was so grateful to that audience member for opening my eyes to the possibility that only a small change was needed to achieve success. Whether it’s Spider Web Discussion or any other classroom method, we must remember that it’s OK to adapt our plan to fit our students’ needs and personalities.