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 1: Engagement and Dialogue
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Peer Facilitation Circle
Talk Show
Identity Stories
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
Peer Facilitation Circle


Carol O'Donnell uses peer facilitation circles to encourage students to share their thoughts, reactions, questions, and observations about texts. Done with almost no intervention from the teacher, the peer facilitation circle involves the whole class and therefore places the responsibility for the flow of the conversation on the students. In this kind of discussion, students assume responsibility for their learning and are better prepared to work effectively in small groups. They also begin to learn how to have authentic, sophisticated conversations about literature.

Peer Facilitation Circle in Carol O'Donnell's Class

To prepare her students for a peer facilitation circle, Carol O'Donnell assigns chapters from James McBride's memoir, The Color of Water, and asks the students to prepare three kinds of responses to the reading: 1) open-ended discussion questions; 2) quotations that they found significant; and 3) emotional or intellectual reactions. (See Student Work.)

To begin the peer circle, one student volunteers to share a reaction to McBride's memoir. This student then calls on another student (whose hand is raised) to contribute a related reaction. The circle continues this way, each student calling on another student to share reactions, quotations, or questions they have prepared, until everyone has participated at least once. Together they consider student-created questions by looking closely at passages in the text and talking to each other.

Tips and Variations for the Peer Facilitation Circle
  • Although the structure of a peer facilitation circle is simple, many students are not used to devising discussion questions, so teachers should ask the students to prepare by bringing the text and a written response to share -- such as questions, quotations, reactions, and/or connections.

  • O'Donnell recommends helping the students craft discussion questions before the peer facilitation circle. She reminds them that the questions should get at "what you really want to talk about or think is important" in a text -- they should be open-ended, but also "connect to our lives." Thus, in The Color of Water peer facilitation circle, a question about the power of race is appropriate. To develop questions like these, students might try them out gradually: in pairs, then in small groups, then in a large group.

  • Teachers can begin with ice-breakers, initial conversations about topics of interest. Teachers can also ask the students to begin by discussing potential benefits and pitfalls of peer-led discussion: e.g., appropriate group behavior, ground rules, and protocols.

  • Teachers may intervene occasionally, but should be deliberate in choosing when and how. Some teachers keep time, set protocols, and intervene if a behavior issue crops up. Some refocus discussions that have gotten off track, pose new questions, or make sure individual students' questions or comments are addressed.

  • The teacher or class should determine protocol before the discussion. Will the students raise their hands or simply speak? Will there be a set time established? Similarly, the class may want to develop ground rules: e.g., no one can interrupt a speaker, or everyone must speak at least once.

  • One of the most difficult parts of a discussion for students is learning to have a real conversation, rather than just a series of contributions. The students must learn to respond to their peers. Teachers can remind them to make connections and to speak in the circle only if their contribution is related to the last comment. A teacher might even note the best responses and talk about why they were effective.

Assessment of the Peer Facilitation Circle

  • Periodically, students and teacher should reflect on the process of these discussions. The students can respond to questions like, "How do I feel when I am in the peer facilitation circle? What types of questions and comments invite the most interesting conversation about the text? What can I do to improve my participation in the circle?" If the group is ready, the class can discuss these questions in the peer facilitation circle.

  • A peer facilitation circle might close with individual writing. The students might reflect on questions like, "What did I learn from this discussion? What questions do I have? What else would I like to discuss?"

Benefits of the Peer Facilitation Circle

  • The peer facilitation circle gives students responsibility for their learning. They can ask authentic questions; in choosing quotations, questions, and reactions to bring to the circle, they learn what they find most important and interesting. As teacher educator Valerie Kinloch comments, "Peer facilitation circles allow students to be responsible for the work that they are doing in the classroom in ways that go beyond these boundaries of the teacher as facilitator, the teacher as constructor of knowledge, the teacher as generator of knowledge. Here the student is co-constructor of knowledge, the student is explorer, and the student is questioner."

  • The teacher can observe and learn what the students think is important or confusing, which can help in designing future lessons or projects.

  • Large-class discussions prepare students for intimate small-group work by teaching them to question, respond, and use protocols.

  • Peer-led discussions help students accept divergent interpretations. The students discover that everyone has different styles of learning and brings different background experience to texts.

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