The Final Word on Class Discussion

Posted by Annie Brown on November 13, 2013

I might be pulling a “Christopher Columbus” and discovering something that has been there all along. But, my lesson last week felt like a breakthrough. I modified the “Save the Last Word” protocol and applied it to my whole class instead of a using it with small groups. The technique generated an amazing discussion and was so simple to use.

The Old Way

5384262362_a0fe9ce2f3_zThe standard “Save the Last Word” (also known as “The Final Word”) discussion is used with groups of four. After reading a passage, each student in the group selects a quotation to ‘bring to the table’ to discuss. The discussion begins with one student sharing a quotation and pointing out the line or lines from the text—nothing more. Then each of the other three students has a one minute opportunity to explain their interpretation and thinking around that quotation. The student who shared the quotation gets the last word and he or she can explain why they picked the quotation or give an interpretation. The conversation is timed so that each student has a minute to talk and the entire protocol takes sixteen minutes to run. (Click here for a more detailed description of this strategy.)

This small group protocol is a great technique for holding all students accountable because each must speak in the small group. It also equalizes the discussion because everyone gets an equal chance to speak; for some students one minute is long, while for others, it is short. It provides a student-centered conversation that pushes students to go in-depth on key parts of a text. In general, I find that protocols are useful guides for students. Yet, I have also found some disadvantages to the protocol. One challenge is that it is hard to manage many small groups and harder to monitor them (and actually hear the conversation). Another challenge is the timing aspect—often students get fixated on the one minute and the substance becomes secondary.

The New Way

I used “The Final Word” during the Christianity part of my World Religions Unit when students read the “Sermon on the Mount” from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. The text is rich and interesting and contains many of the basic tenets and guidelines for moral behavior for the faith. It is moderately difficult and has complex, interesting concepts all of which makes it great for discussion.

Students prepared by reading silently and underlining five important passages in the text. As a guide, I gave them the overarching question: What is Jesus’ message? I view an overarching question as a useful way to frame a conversation and this question provided a focus or purpose for the students’ reading. For each underlined section, students wrote a short (three word) note about the meaning of the quotation. We could easily have prepared with a “Reader Response” activity—but the “Three-Word Summary,” a familiar technique we use in class, was faster and meant that the students had not fully formed their ideas before the discussion so they were open to hearing from others.

8413456869_d3197eca65_zAfter explaining the protocol, I opened the discussion. One student shared a passage and the line in the text. Then, I called on three other students to explain what they thought the passage meant. Next, we returned to the first student to hear their response. The final speaker often explained why she chose the passage, what she originally thought it meant and any new ideas she now had that summarize the significance.

The discussion continued with another student bringing up a new passage. Students were eager to volunteer quotations and share their differing interpretations. They often began sentences with stems like: “I agree with . . .”, “I interpreted the passage differently than . . .” and “My interpretation is . . .” The protocol did not seem burdensome or overly-structured. The conversation flowed well and I felt that we got to a deeper level of conversation because students were willing to stay on one quotation for a fair amount of time.

This text-based discussion was like a Socratic seminar in terms of rigor, but felt much easier to facilitate. Initial Socratic seminars are always so awkward with students trying to generate conversation; my students mostly devolve into uncomfortable, lengthy silences which I chalk up to the learning curve. The “Final Word” discussion protocol gives students clear guidance on how to get a conversation started and there were no moments of struggle. Though my discussion was somewhat teacher-led, it could easily be a part of a gradual release of teacher-power to make it more student-directed.

Here are a few tips:

  • Use an overarching question to frame the conversation and provide a focus while students read.
  • Use the word “interpretation” so that students will use it as well.
  • Encourage students to select passages that they feel are important or that they wonder about (are not sure of the meaning).
  • Number each line of the text so students can easily refer to the line numbers as they read a passage.

How could you use this? What texts might you use this for? Are there other ways you have adapted the "Save the Last Word" strategy?

Topics: Teaching Strategy, A View from the Classroom

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