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Getting started with the Spider Web Discussion Strategy

Need a way to get students to talk?

Use the Spider Web Discussion Strategy (adapted from The Best Class You Never Taught by A. Wiggins) to explicitly practice with students how to participate and assess their participation in discussions. A couple of rounds of this and students will be prepared for the discussions you have always dreamed of! These discussions create an opportunity for students to talk without looking to the teacher for answers.

In a Spider Web Discussion, the students themselves learn how to discuss their ideas and use information they already know to make connections. After setting the stage with students, start the timer and graph the conversation as you stay mostly silent. After the timer ends, the teacher shares the graph of the conversation to help students reflect on what they contributed to the conversation. In addition, this allows students to reflect on what they got (or could have got) from participating in the conversation. Supporting feedback, authentic assessment, and deeper level thinking, this creates space to listen to your students, allow them to drive conversation, and show them that their thinking with each other mattered.

Follow these 4 easy steps!

(1) Plan the questions!

Though you can use this Spider Web Discussion Strategy at the beginning, middle, or end of any unit, be sure that your questions are clear enough to spark interest and can be based on what they already know. You should have about 5 questions in your back pocket - one to start the conversation and 3-4 questions to help move the conversation forward if students are silent for more than a minute.

Below are some sample questions you can use for some subject areas. The point of these questions is to remain away from closed questions; instead use questions that require students to draw a conclusion, make a connection, use some kind of reasoning, find evidence for their claims, or synthesize information.

Math & Science:

  • This site has some of the best math discussion prompts out there. No need to reinvent the wheel - 100 questions. But here are some more

  • What evidence can you present for/against _?

  • How does _ contrast with _?

  • How could you outline or concept map _?

  • Why is _ important? What impact does it have on _?

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of _?

  • How could you judge the accuracy of _?

  • What are the differences between _ and _?

  • How is _ related _ to?

  • What ideas could you add to _ and how would these ideas change it?

  • When might _ be most useful and why?

  • What might happen if you combine _ and _ ?

  • How is _ an example of _?

  • What are the most important parts or features of _?

  • Which detail of _ is the most important and why?

  • What patterns do you notice in _?

  • How could you classify _ into a more/less general category?

  • What makes _ important?

  • What criteria could you use to assess _?

  • How could _ and _ function together?

Reading & Writing:

  • How are the characters and their problems/decisions/relationships believable or realistic?

  • How did the author’s use of any structural or narrative devices like flashbacks or multiple voices affect the story and your appreciation of the book? How do you think it might have been different if another character was telling the story?

  • How did the author’s use of descriptions affect your reading of the book?

  • What do you think was more important to the author, the characters or the plot?

  • How were some of the major themes of the book relevant to your life?

  • What patterns are you noticing from this scene/quote and how does that change the story?

  • What do you notice about the character(s) internal struggle(s)?

  • How is the relationship between __ & __changing?

  • How is the conflict changing and how does that change the story?

  • What inferences can we make about this scene/quote?

  • Who or what is influencing the character(s) in this scene/quote? How so?

  • Whose point of view are we hearing or has been left out?

  • What does _ mean?

  • What is the essential function of _?

  • What are the causes of _?

  • What are the consequences of _?

  • How is _ like or unlike _?

  • What is the significance of _?

  • How did _ happen?

  • What kind of person is _?

  • What is your personal response to _?

  • What list of essential major points of _ can we create?

  • What case can be made for or against _?

Social Studies & History:

  • What groups of people are involved? What do they believe? What do they want?

  • How do these individuals or groups go about getting what they want? What worked or didn’t work, and why?

  • What can be learned from the choices of individuals or groups?

  • What does it remind you of? What does it mean to you?

(2) Set the Stage:

Prep the students by explaining these FIVE things:

  1. Everyone will get the same grade because this is a class discussion.

  2. Each student is to contribute to the conversation in these three ways:

    1. Ask a question about a meaning or context

    2. Make a connection to a fact or concept

    3. Share a new piece of knowledge

  3. Keep track of your contributions with the rubric. Every time you speak, star the kind of contribution you made.

  4. We only have _ mins for everyone to speak at least 3 times.

  5. I will only enter the conversation if there is silence for 1 minute. Every time I have to jump in, I take 1 minute off of the timer, but everyone still has to contribute 3 times!

(3) Have the DISCUSSION!

Pose the first question and then start the timer. Be mostly silent (unless the conversation stalls to provide provocative questions) as you graph the conversation.

As students speak, draw lines between who responds to who's idea and code based what they contributed to the conversation. Be sure to code the ways that they are contributing, based on the rubric - but also feel free to add your own! These arrows and codes are a part of the feedback they will hear at the end of the conversation.

(4) DISCUSS & Reflect

After the timer ends, share your web with students to show how each student contributed and have students reflect what they learned about the topic! Direct students to compare their codes with your codes, and self-assess how they individually contributed to the discussion. Ask the following questions to spark additional discussion:

  • Did you contribute in all three ways?

  • Which way was easiest to contribute and why?

  • How else could you have contributed to the discussion?

Then, set a new goal with students - this could be based on the number of students who participated, the number of times students contributed, the number of questions asked, etc. At the end, compare the number of contributions to the number of students total and the number of students who contributed to provide a formative grade for this activity.

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