Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 3: Research and Discovery - Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
K/W/L Chart
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Teaching Strategies


Fishbowl is a strategy used not only in classrooms but also in business meetings and other settings where group dynamics are important. This technique allows for a richer discussion of any given topic, and it frequently helps build community by focusing attention on the ways that particular group might work together more productively. In a literature classroom, it also demonstrates how different groups can collaborate to construct meaning from a text. As students analyze a text and connect their responses with others', they model peer literature circle discussions.

Fishbowl in Sally Brownfield's Classroom

In Sally Brownfield's classroom, the fishbowl helps the students understand American Indian residential schools and connect texts to their community. She selects the fishbowl strategy to help focus the discussion about complex issues. Brownfield and the students examine the issue of racism as it appears in a particular section of My Name Is Seepeetza. The students discuss racism, not just as it permeates the entire residential school program but as it exists among the students at the residential program, and also the anti-Japanese racism that exists in the period in which the novel is set. The class then follows this thorough analysis of the text with a conversation about racism as it exists for them, their school, and their community.

There are many ways to use a fishbowl in the classroom, and, as in Brownfield's class, many decisions to make about when it may be used most effectively. Below are some steps for creating the basic structure.

Steps for Setting up a Fishbowl

A small group of students (as many as half the class) arrange themselves in a circle in the center of a room. This small group will conduct a discussion together while the rest of the students watch, take notes, and later pose questions and give comments about what they observed. The teacher can be part of either the inner "fishbowl" circle or the outer circle. To begin, teachers might select students for the fishbowl who are fairly skilled at group discussion -- or might deliberately choose one or two who are new to it so that the fishbowl doesn't seem too "perfect" for those who are observing. Once the group is established, the teacher should set some ground rules. These guidelines ensure that group members practice particular discussion skills, such as taking turns, building upon a previous person's comments, and asking questions to extend thinking. Ground rules might include:
  • Students should only state supported ideas, agree with a speaker and add supporting information, disagree with a speaker and offer refuting information, or connect contributions.

  • No one may interrupt a speaker.

  • No one may speak a second time until everyone has had a chance.

The guidelines for the outside circle may include listening quietly, taking notes on discussion skills, and noting nonverbal communication. Each "outside" student might be assigned an "inside" student to observe specifically, or the "outside" students can be asked to observe everyone. In general, the silent, observing students attend to aspects of group discussion that generally aren't noticed in classroom discussions.

To begin the discussion, the teacher or a student within the fishbowl offers an open-ended question, and the fishbowl group discusses it. Students might initially be self-conscious as part of the group "on stage," but they generally grow comfortable as the conversation flows.

After a set amount of time, the inside circle finishes their discussion and the outside circle discusses what they observed. This may take as much time as the fishbowl discussion itself, or more. The teacher might begin by inviting the outside circle to add their thoughts on the subject of the fishbowl conversation. The inside participants listen and then respond to the comments. Teachers may also ask those in the inner circle to assess their discussion first, then ask the outside circle to add their comments, as long as everyone can discuss what happened. The session might end with a whole-class discussion about what they learned and how it applies to future discussions.

Tips and Variations for the Fishbowl

  • After one round of a fishbowl, teachers might have the two circles change places. When all the students have experienced both the inside and the outside of the fishbowl, the teacher can ask questions like: What was it like being inside the circle? Outside the circle? How are the two roles different? What did you learn from each? How do you think you will carry what you learned from this exercise into small-group discussions? Into whole-class discussions?

  • Some teachers leave an empty seat in the fishbowl for an outside participant who wants to speak. He or she should move to the vacant seat and join the discussion until someone else from outside the circle wants to join. That person then taps the first person on the shoulder, and they quietly switch places.

  • Many teachers stay out of the fishbowl, since their presence can make the discussion less natural. Whether in or out of the group, however, the teacher must keep time, attend to behavior issues that the fishbowl group cannot handle, and maintain group protocols.

Benefits of the Fishbowl

  • Fishbowls are especially beneficial when using multicultural literature. Like K/W/L charts, fishbowls allow the teacher to see what misconceptions students have and address them. They also create a safe forum for students to observe how charged a discussion of cultural issues might become. Because there is always a post discussion analysis, fishbowls also allow a group to handle this together.

  • Students in the outside circle of a fishbowl can observe how specific individuals question, respond to, and make meaning of a text, which can model small-group literature circle discussions.

  • Fishbowls allow students to practice group discussion skills.

  • Fishbowls also teach observation, listening, and community-building skills.

  • Fishbowls provide students with the opportunity to identify small-group discussion habits in an effort to improve upon them.

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