If you have not tried a silent dialogue but, you need to achieve this as quickly as attainable

Do you know that feeling when you pull off the perfect discussion in class? Those warm fuzzies on the way to your car while you remember your dominators stepping back and letting others do the talking, your interrupters hanging on, your quieter students stepping in and providing textual evidence to prove their point?

It’s a feeling we don’t get that often.

Discussions aren’t easy, and with the combination of 30 moods, readiness levels, confidence, and everything else, is it any wonder? One of my favorite techniques for having a discussion that can navigate through all of these sticky points is a bit counter-intuitive, but soooo effective. This is called silent discussion.

The beginning

I had my first silent discussion 15 years ago on a tricky morning in my trailer classroom while trying to get my students to think seriously.

“Turn your notebook into a blank page,” I said. “And write a reading question at the top.”

So they did.

“Now turn your notebook to the left and write an answer to the question you see.”

Quiet doodle. Focused Concentration. A minute later I had them pass their notebooks again.

“Read the question and the answer, then continue the conversation.”

Etc. After 10 minutes I had all of their notebooks returned to the original writers of the question.

It was magical. Every single person had the opportunity to see what others were wondering, see what others thought and write their own answers. Children who needed a little more time to formulate an idea before verbally contributing had the opportunity to carefully examine it on the site. My students, who usually ignored the discussion, wrote down their thoughts instead.

Children who tended to dominate could write as much as they wanted without talking about others.

I knew I had struck gold.

When I asked a few minutes later who wanted to start a conversation with the question they had written, I had many volunteers. Everyone was warmed up to the issues and ready to dive into the deepening of what our silent discussion had begun.

As you can imagine, this was just the beginning of my career as a silent discussion. I’ve tried different versions myself and encouraged other teachers to jump in and experiment as well.

At this point I can share a whole menu of silent discussion options for you, so hold on to your flair pens and get ready to pick your favorite!

The notebook pass

This is so easy. Just do what I did the very first time and have the kids write a question and pass it to the left. Etc.

Butcher Paper Bonanza

Got one of those big notepads? Or giant post-its? Throw some papers on the wall in your room with key questions about each one.

Play soft music and ask the children to walk around, read questions, and respond to both questions and other answers. Encourage them to add arrows or other connections to show how their thinking relates to other answers on the paper.

love sketch notes? You can also encourage sharing of visual ideas with icons, doodles, bullets, and sketches.

post-it fun

Little time for big paper, but rolled up in post-its? Place your key questions on your whiteboard or on table tents at stations around the room, then hand out post-its to pairs of students. They can wander from question to question, read answers and write their thoughts on their post-its.

I even used this one in a teaching conference presentation to give the more experienced people in the room a chance to bring their ideas to the group:

Google Slides – the easy online option

Do you meet with your students online? Give them group access to a slide deck with questions at the top of each slide and sections for their answers (Get my favorite simple templates here). Ask them to answer a question, then flip through the slides, read, and respond to others. It’s surprisingly easy to get it working.

Prolongation of a silent discussion

When your silent discussion comes to a natural end, there are a number of ways you can expand it.

You could have the students choose one of the topics they would like to explore in writing now that they have read many other people’s minds.

You could move on to a partner or group activity related to the questions.

Or, one of my favorites, use the silent discussion as a springboard for a loud discussion. Because each student has had time to think about questions and write answers, there is less pressure and more richness and depth as children begin to speak. Just continue with the question, “Who had many interesting answers to their question? Can you engage us in conversation by reading your question out loud?”

OK my friend, are you ready to try? Don’t be surprised if you feel those fabulous post-discussion warm fuzzies walking out the door after class.

What silent conversation strategy are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments.

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