I completely agree with this post that having a structure for your discussion makes all the difference in the world. I’ve had the occasional class that on the occasional day could break into an insightful discussion without my intervention, but it’s never been the norm. And having a lot of different discussion formats in your repertoire allows you to adjust to scheduling needs, diagnose and solve classroom problems, and keep things interesting.
But trying a new format can also be daunting. I wrote about the things that can go wrong with fishbowl discussions and the appointment clock strategy so that other people wouldn’t have to go through as much trial and error as I did. Let’s talk about another discussion format that works with any text and is easy to implement once you get the hang of it.
Passage Pass is a silent discussion activity (students will be writing their thoughts) that uses this handout. I also do silent discussions online, but sometimes I like the focus of having every student looking at one text and one sheet.
Every student gets a copy of the handout (in a pinch, you could put the directions up and have them use their own paper) and fills out the front side. The sheet asks them to pick out a passage from the reading for the day that they have some ideas and some questions about and would like to discuss more. I find with some students it helps to make it visual: “pick out a spot in the text” (point to a page) “that’s a couple of inches or so” (indicate how big 10 or so lines of text is). At least a sentence but not a whole page. If they annotate their readings, you can also say “pick something you marked.”
One of the nice things about Passage Pass is that students don’t have to have a clear argument yet. I tell them to just pick a passage that seemed important or interesting to them. Then they get the chance to see what their classmates think about the passage.
I’ve walked into class many, many times and started the activity that way. But if you feel like your students could use more scaffolding, you could also model an important passage of a sentence or two and then ask them to choose something similarly meaningful. Or you could ask them to pick out a passage more related to something you’re working on (a Notice and Note Signpost, or a particular theme). Do be aware, though, that the more direction you give, the more likely students are to pick the same passages. Giving them free rein can result in an interesting variety of passages.
Passing the Passage Pass
Once students have completed the first page, collect the sheets and redistribute them so that everyone has someone else’s. I like to do this as they finish so that no one has a long time to wait. I also give the sheet a quick glance to see that it’s on topic. Personally, I like to move the sheets around the room so students don’t know whose sheet they’re going to get. But keep in mind that it can get kind of confusing. It’s easier to just have everyone hand the sheet to the person to their right.
Next, I tell students to look up the original passage and see if they marked it. (Some students tend to jump into answering the questions if you don’t give them specific instructions to look back to the text). Students then fill out the top half of the back side of the sheet.
Then you collect and redistribute one more time. Again, I like to move them around but it gets even more confusing when two people have already seen the sheet and you’re trying to find a third. Some students also struggle to say something new on a sheet that’s already been commented on. I think that’s a great opportunity to talk about playing devil’s advocate or other discussion extenders like suggesting a new passage that relates.
Finally the sheet is returned to the person who originally chose the passage to see what others had to say about it. I usually let students get up and do this themselves to add in a quick movement break.
One of the things I really like about Passage Pass is that you can see what students are thinking. They often choose passages and topics that I wouldn’t have, so the discussion is more geared towards their interests.
I usually glance at the sheets as I’m redistributing them and then listen as the students share afterwards. But if you feel like you need to get a better sense of what students understand, you could also collect the sheets and read through them more carefully outside of class. I also wouldn’t do this activity early on in a difficult text like Shakespeare because sometimes students feel uncomfortable about not getting more definitive responses to their questions.
Unlike traditional discussions, silent discussions let everyone participate at the same time, so engagement is likely to be much higher. Another thing I like about this activity is that students get to hear from a variety of voices. Since I have students think-pair-share a lot, I like to move their sheets around to someone other than the seat partner that they work with a lot.
I also start the post-activity discussion by saying “Who would like to give snaps to someone who helped them think more deeply?” (I use Legally Blonde snaps a lot.) The ensuing discussion allows you to hear more about what students wrote and follow up on ideas that need more emphasis, while also building community. It’s especially nice when a quieter student or “unsung hero” receives snaps.
Emergency Sub Plans
What teacher isn’t desperate for an activity a sub can do, especially for unexpected absences?
Passage Pass often works. Even different preps reading different books can do the same activity. The only caveats I would give are to have the sub collect the sheets for added accountability and to consider how the sub is going to redistribute the sheets since he or she doesn’t know the students’ names.
I hope Passage Pass helps you build your repertoire of discussion formats. I’ve found that it’s nice to do about once a quarter and that students continue to get better. Copy a stack of the sheets and keep them handy!