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The Teacher's Guide to Leading Student-Centered Discussions

The Teacher's Guide to Leading Student-Centered Discussions
Talking About Texts in the Classroom

March 2014 | 136 pages | Corwin
This book is written for those who value collaborative inquiry, open-ended questions, and student-centered classroom discourse. Leading student-centered discussions is natural for some people and not-so-natural for others. The teacher's role is more than following a set protocol or asking a series of questions. Like much of teaching, leading a discussion falls somewhere between science, art, and magic as the facilitator faces a constant stream of decisions based on ever-changing student behavior.

This book is a model for text-based discussions and provides a framework to make decisions that lead to student-centered conversations focused on the understanding of ideas. The book is divided into three sections. The first is for teachers new to student-centered discussions and describes the "science" of leading a discussion: the basic elements of student-centered, text-based discussions, and how to plan for them. The second delves into the "art" and "magic" of leading discussions and provides a framework for making decisions during discussions as the conversation develops. The third section offers a rich collection of strategies for problem-solving when discussions aren't going well and to guide the reader toward continuous improvement of facilitation skills. The book's decision-making framework stresses safety, authentic participation, challenge, and ownership, all of which will help teachers move from a basic level of understanding of discussion facilitation skills to a deepened understanding of the discussion process and the teacher's role within it.

About the Authors
Part I: Getting Started: The "Science" of Leading Discussions
1. The Fundamentals of Facilitating
Why Have Student Centered Discussions?

Essential Ingredients of a Student-Centered, Text-based Discussion, aka “Seminar”

The Architecture of a Discussion

Frequently Asked Questions and Tips for Beginners

Tips for Beginners


PART II: Becoming a Skillful Facilitator: The “Art and Magic” of Leading Discussions
2. Safety
Recognizing Safety Issues

Tone of the Discussion

Atmosphere of Safety and Respect

Creating a Culture of Inquiry

The Danger of Sarcasm

Feedback During Seminar

A Climate of Respect

3. Authentic Participation
Recognizing Authentic Participation Issues

Attention-Seeking Participation

Text-Focused Participation

Reflective Activity

Assessing Pauses in Conversation

Facilitator is Not the Focus

4. Challenge
Recognizing Challenge Issues

Assessing Understanding

Off-Topic Conversation

Repetitive Ideas and Statements


Challenging Ideas

5. Ownership
Recognizing Ownership Issues

Avoiding Anarchy

Facilitator Releasing Control

Student-Driven Discussions

6. The Seminar Decision-Making Model
Steps of the Decision-Making Process

Identifying the Issue

Identifying Possible Causes

Match to Primary Fulcrum

Identifying and Applying Possible Strategies

Determine Effectiveness of Strategy and Next Steps

PART III: Improving Student-Centered Discussions
7. Strategies for Ongoing Improvement Across All the Fulcrums

Seminar Mapping

Teaching the Fulcrums to Students


Seminar Folders


Peer Planning

Peer Coaching

Case Study

8. Strategies for Improving Specific Fulcrums

Seminar Ground Rules

Assigned Seats

Yellow Card, Red Card



Write Before You Talk

Role Play

Stop and Try Again

Building Safety Outside Seminar

Role Play

Have Seminars More Frequently

Ask The Students

Authentic Participation

Heads-Up Question


Round Robin

Inviting Quiet People to Speak

Reflective Writing

Follow-up Writing

Positive Reinforcement


Question Again

Pair Share/Write During Seminar


Map Connections


Where in the Text?

Ask Follow-Up Questions

Paraphrase and Probe

Pair-Share/Write during Seminar


Choosing a Different Type of Text

Good Questions


Relinquish the Reins


Wait Time

Favorite Text Phenomenon

Eye Contact

Don’t Be Afraid—Drive


Look Around the Circle

Resource A – Training Guides
Using the Fulcrums for Professional Development

Working with Groups of Teachers

New Facilitators

Experienced Facilitators

Working on Your Own/Working with Individual Teachers

Individual Teachers

Resource B – Reproducibles

"Practical and beneficial to teaching and learning in today's world ...the book provides good strategies for helping teachers facilitate meaningful academic discussions in the classroom setting."

Sylvia Jackson
Principal, Adolfo Camarillo High School, Camarillo, CA

"There is a great deal of relevant, practical information in this book for teachers to use to improve the quality of seminars." 

Cynthia Passmore
Assistant Professor, Science Education, School of Education, University of California, Davis

"A teacher can take this text and learn to facilitate a seminar. The examples are very useful and after some practice, I believe I too could manage a seminar discussion successfully."

Eric Kincaid
Science Teacher, Morgantown High School, Morgantown, WV

"I loved the case stories/examples of classroom seminars/discussions that illustrated the author's points...I was able to relate to many of the problems that some of the teachers faced in their seminars...The book will make a distinct contribution to the field."

Kimberly C. Smith
Advanced Math Teacher/Math Department Chair, Welborn Middle School, High Point, NC

"There are two reasons why this book is so important now. The first is the vitality of the subject: true classroom dialogue may be our only hope for helping our students become civil as well as thoughtful citizens. The second is that the authors practice what they preach. They assume from the first page that teachers themselves are thoughtful professionals, capable of making the subtle decisions discussed in these pages. The result is a book that should lie open on the desk of any teacher who is truly interested in teaching students to think."

Terry Roberts, Director
National Paideia Center

"As a teacher and teacher educator, I have led hundreds of student-centered discussions and in reading this book I discovered new ideas and strategies that will help me improve the quality of my own classroom discussions. I believe there are strategies in this book for all teachers, novice to expert."

Jennifer R. Mangrum, Coordinator of Elementary Education Initiative
North Carolina State University

"A strong student-centered discussion is a teacher's dream - a classroom of students energized by intellectual exchange. That's why Hale and City's book is such a gift. This book is packed with strategies for facilitating great discussions. Whether you are new to student-centered discussions or an old-pro, their book will help you think strategically about how to take your classroom to the next level."

Eric Westendorf, Founding Director
The National Teaching Academy

"I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to teach students to improve their listening, critical thinking, social, or college success skills."

Jennifer Lerner, Northern Virginia Community College
NACADA Journal, Spring 2007

Sample Materials & Chapters


Chapter 1

Michael Scott Hale

Michael S. Hale has served as a teacher, principal, professional developer, professor, university administrator, and educational software executive.  His passion for student inquiry has resulted in many years of experience with participant-centered discussions in a wide variety of settings.   A National Paideia Faculty member, he has worked with many teachers and students to develop the knowledge and skills to engage in idea- and text-based conversations.  He currently spends most of his days as Vice President for Curriculum Consulting with VitalSource Technologies in Raleigh, NC, where he works with educators to... More About Author

Elizabeth A. City

Elizabeth A. City has served as a teacher, principal, and instructional coach, primarily in North Carolina and Massachusetts. In addition to enjoying countless student-centered discussions in her own classroom, as a National Paideia Faculty member, she has worked with teachers and students across the country as they have learned to facilitate and participate in text-based conversations. Much of Liz’s current work centers on supporting principals and teachers in creating collaborative communities where rich dialogue and learning for both adults and children is the norm. She is a member of the Senior Faculty of Boston’s School Leadership... More About Author

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ISBN: 9781412906357