Scaffolding Student Panel Discussions for Success

Earlier this month, I was inspired to try student panel presentations in my classroom with 8th graders. Due to safety related restrictions, it is near impossible to do many of the face to face discussion strategies I have used in the past, so I wanted to try something that would allow in-person discussion with minimal movement. This post from Jenna Copper is a great starting point, and I used her terrific rubric and tips. In my post, I will share how I provided extra scaffolding that you may need if you are teaching younger students and/or not teaching Honors/Advanced/AP students.

Topics and Choice

I provided a total of 15 topic choices based on our collaborative reading of “The Scarlet Ibis” and reflection work and literary analysis tasks students completed during and after the reading of the short story. Students could sign up in our class copy in the Google Doc; I gave students a total 5 days to choose 3 topics; if they did not sign up, I chose their presentation topics. In addition, students made a copy of a presentation notes template I created in Google Docs; they used this to type of their “script” of what they wanted to say along with their textual evidence to support their thinking; this is especially helpful for younger learners or those who tend to get nervous speaking in front of their peers. They eventually turned in this work to Canvas, our course LMS, as an assignment.  I included an example of a model response to help them visualize the quality of response we were aiming to achieve for set of presentation notes.

Students had two days of class to work on their presentation notes; they could also work on this task at home. Students could also share their planning work with me for help and feedback prior to the presentations; while some students took advantage of this offer, many did not. I told students to be ready for the first day of presentations on Friday, October 16 as I might not go in numerical order with the topics. In addition, we also reviewed the rubric and expectations for students as participants on the panel as well as active listeners and participating as respectful audience members; these guidelines were based on the rubric from Jenna Cooper.  Additionally, I shared with students the presentations would be a performance assessment.  Last but not least, I stressed the importance of doing original thinking and academic honesty, especially after I noticed several students attempting to “Google” their answers.

Day 1 and First Presentations

On our first day, we used Socrative as the tool for providing reflection and thinking from the audience members. They could also submit questions for the panelists through Socrative though most students did not. I also gave students a copy of discussion response stems if they needed help formulating a reflection or response to what they were hearing from their fellow students on a panel.  We use Canvas daily in my class, so it was easy to post the links and digital copies of all the materials they needed in the day’s lesson.  Here is a synopsis of how we structured our panel discussions:

  • Presenters:  I borrowed a table from a fellow teacher and students sat in the front of the room to share their thinking.  I had a portable microphone on standby, but we did not need it.  Students could use their notes and copy of the story as needed using their Chromebooks (we are 1:1 this year thankfully!).   I called upon my student experts to first discuss the topic they had chosen; I then gave them follow-up questions from students or that I developed for them.
  • Audience Members:  students were asked to be respectful and active listeners by responding to what they hearing from their fellow students in the panel discussions.  On our first day, we used Socrative for students to respond; students could use the discussion response stems I provided, ask a question, discuss their thoughts on the topic, and/or share how what they were hearing was changing or adding to their understanding about the topic.

My first period students did a terrific job on our first day.  Not only did they come prepared, but they also made a great effort as listeners with their responses in Socrative.  This class has struggled all semester, so I was delighted by their enthusiasm and efforts!  My 4th period co-taught class also had a strong first day; I have many students in this section for whom English is not their native language, and they get very nervous speaking in front of peers, but they did an excellent job and became more comfortable with each presentation.

Unfortunately, my 5th and 6th period classes did not come as prepared as my first two classes.  While quite a few students in 5th did an outstanding job as presenters, I had several who were not prepared.  In 6th period, very few students came prepared while the majority clearly were unprepared and to make matters worse, did not seem terribly concerned or regretful about their lack of preparation.  I urged both classes to make sure they came prepared on Monday and Tuesday of of the following week for their remaining presentations not only to help themselves, but to help their classmates as hearing others’ ideas was the entire purpose of the panel discussions.  I also reminded students they had selected their topics, and if they did not, they did not take advantage of the opportunity to do so and to do their best with what they had been assigned. 

In all classes, we ended the day with our reflections and feedback on the presentations at large.  I used a Google Form to capture their thinking.

The feedback was incredibly insightful as the students identified strengths and weaknesses in presentations.  Many also expressed how much they enjoyed hearing the ideas of their peers and how the panel presentations were helping them understand different parts of “The Scarlet Ibis” better and/or differently.  Many students in 5th and 6th also expressed they hoped their peers who did not come prepared would do better the following week.  I created a new form for each day of presentations, and we completed this task as our “ticket out the door” for the day.

Days 2 and 3 of Presentations:  Touchdown, Fumbles, Punts, and Recoveries

My Period 8-1 and 8-4 classes continued to roll along smoothly and finished their presentations on Monday and Tuesday (October 19 and 20).  The one change we made was to use switch from Socrative to Google Forms for student feedback and reflections for each panel presentation as this method made it easier for me to check each student’s feedback for each panel and to keep a running total of responses from each student as part of their audience participation assessment.  If I noticed students were not completing this task, I spoke with them privately and reminded them of the multiple reasons as to why their participation in the audience was essential. 

Google Forms worked well for students in recording their responses for each panel, and it made it easier for me to track their participation as active listeners.

However, that same day (Monday, the 19th) I was disappointed when I realized about halfway through my Period 8-5 presentations that the majority of students scheduled to be on panels that day had not used the extra weekend time to prepare.  I actually stopped the presentations, shared how disappointed I was, and the lack of preparation was not only disrespectful to their peers, but it was also disrespectful to themselves and to me as their teacher.  At that point, students completed a reflection on why/how they had made the decision to not prepare; the entire class also voted through Google Forms if they wanted to move forward with face to face presentations or through Flipgrid.  Based on what I saw 5th, I felt my 6th period class would not be prepared either, especially since they had done fairly poorly on the previous Friday, so I headed things off at the pass and began class with the same talk and survey.  Both classes overwhelmingly voted to continue face to face with a resolve to do better.  They could then use the rest of class to work on their presentations; if they were prepared, they could use the remainder of class to read their new 2nd quarter independent reading book choice.

Sometimes a little tough love is needed with students; I think once these two classes realized I was not going to accept mediocre efforts or work, most pulled themselves together and rallied to be ready for their remaining presentations.  If students were absent or placed into quarantine, they were instructed to record their part of the panel presentation in Flipgrid assignments I had set up for this purpose.   The delay for Period 8-5 and 8-6 caused them to end up 1-2 days behind my other classes, but in the end, they did step up for the most part to give a solid effort for their panel discussions.  

All classes had the opportunity to complete a final self-assessment of their work as a presenter and audience member in the panel discussions:

Final Thoughts/Observations

I have never asked students to do panel presentations, but I will definitely try this activity again.  Though I still prefer ConverSTATIONS Pop Up Discussions,  and Socratic Seminars, I feel like this gave students an opportunity to share their thinking in a way that is a gentle entry point for public speaking and a format that builds confidence.  I do want to think more about how to encourage and help panelists generate more discussion amongst themselves; I think with more experience, this aspect will come more naturally to my 8th graders, but I also want to consider how I might scaffold this aspect of the panel discussions. 

Have you tried panel discussions with your students?  Have you put them in the driver’s seat as self-selected experts on different topics?  I’d love to hear your experiences and suggestions whether you teach secondary Language Arts or another subject area!

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