English - Silent sixth-formers

Get a grip on group discussion

Remember when Michael Parkinson interviewed Meg Ryan and she was as responsive as a vegan to a surf `n' turf? It's like that when you try to stimulate whole-group discussion in a literature class. Oh, they'll talk about their weekend or Skins. But asked to discuss Hardy's archaisms, they hyperventilate.

You can still watch the Parky vs Ryan clip on YouTube. Parky looks anxious, desperate, then suicidal - like an English teacher with an unresponsive class. So here are some ideas I've used:

Anxious: The discussion is sporadic and grinding to a halt, mainly because pupils veer into social talk at every opportunity. So take the Make It Relevant principle to extremes and challenge them to link the poem to their favourite topics. "Right, you've got three minutes to write down possible connections between Hardy's poem and Skins and then justify your ideas to the class." This forces them into lateral thinking and naming specific features of the poem to explore once the discussion has re- ignited.

Desperate: You're 10 minutes in. The only people speaking are you and one confident boy. Every time you question them, the rest turn to Mr Able- Student, their eyes like baby seals in charity adverts. So stretch him: "Rob, could you rephrase my question for the class? What do you think I'm asking?" They might feel less intimidated about responding to his version of the issue.

Another favourite of mine is a paired activity I call "Lord Sugar questioning". For a group of 12, prepare six sheets of paper, each featuring one question or critical quotation. Each pair has three minutes to discuss and write a brief response to the question before passing the sheet on to the next pair and receiving another, on which they write something different from the previous pair. The whole class then discusses the given responses and has to "hire or fire" them, justifying their decisions.

Suicidal: The only things making noise are you, a radiator and the wind outside. Time to play "one-word analysis". Sit them in a circle. You start a sentence off ("Three themes of this poem are .") and they contribute one word each to the analysis, going round the circle. Move on to "one- sentence analysis". You pose a question. Give them a minute to write their sentence before reading it out. Other students comment, but only with one sentence. Conveniently, this activity also tests their understanding of the comma splice.

If they still won't talk, comfort yourself with this thought: unlike Parky, you don't have the whole nation watching your pain.

Fran Hill is an English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire

What else?

For useful teaching and learning resources try the icebreakers for new classes from deleted107 which can be adapted for any subject, engaging lesson activities from Rob Plevin and "thinking keys" shared by Marlin

See www.tes.co.ukresources005 for all resources.

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