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TeachNet: The Fishbowl: Using Action Research to Meet Standards and Improve Class Discussions

Purpose of the Project:
The new English Language Arts (ELA) Standards require thoughtful and critical discussion around reading and writing. The action research process allows students to investigate the quality of their discussions and use this research to set individual and class goals to improve their conversations. 

View the Streaming Video

As its name implies, action research is a process in which students collect data about their learning and take action based on what they have discovered. Most importantly, the students are responsible for their learning and engage in critical thinking as they strive to meet the ELA Standards. 

How It Works: 
The class reads a novel together, preparing thoughtful questions for discussion. The teacher is responsible for demonstrating how good readers might question a text. The students participate in a "fishbowl" discussion to do the research. Half of the class is in an inside circle and they are the "fish." The fish have partners in the outside circle researching their discussion. The partner investigates whether the discussion participant is using strategies the class has agreed are necessary to have a good conversation (e.g. listening respectfully and supporting ideas with evidence from the text) These strategies come from the students' own experience with talking about books and the ELA standards. 

During the discussion, students propose discussion questions, explore their ideas, and arrive at conclusions about their thinking as a group, all the while working together to communicate successfully. They are entirely responsible for sustaining a ten to fifteen minute thoughtful conversation about their reading. The researchers collect data on how their partners are using the strategies. After the fishbowl, the students meet with their partners and review the research. Based on the data collected, the students propose goals they will try to meet during the next discussion. For example, if a student discovers she is not using the text to support her ideas, she will try to cite at least one piece of evidence from the reading during the next discussion. Or if a student tends to dominate the conversation, he will try to give others more opportunities to speak. The class as a whole also reflects on the research and generates ideas to improve our conversations. 

What You Need:

  1. A safe environment. The research process puts students' thinking and actions under the scrutiny of their peers. There needs to exist a sense of trust in the learning community and a commitment to this process as necessary to becoming critical thinkers and to meeting the ELA Standards.
  2. Clear criteria for conducting research. The teacher needs to help the students understand the strategies necessary for a good discussion and how to investigate how and whether they are being used. (See below for a model research form.)
  3. Patience. Students' initial efforts to sustain a ten to fifteen minute discussion and research their learning habits will invariably bring up challenges. Use these times as opportunities to problem solve as a community and trust that the research process will encourage the students to take responsibility for their learning. 
  4. An engaging text to read and discuss. While children are natural talkers, reading a story that elicits passionate response makes for much richer conversation.

Standards Assessed by this Unit:
  1. ELA Speaking and Listening Standards - Specifically Standard E3b: The student participates in group meetings in which they display appropriate communication behaviors; give reasons to support ideas expressed; clarify, illustrate, or expand on a response when asked to do so, etc.
  2. ELA Reading and Literature Standards - Specifically Standard E5a: The student responds to fiction using critical and evaluative processes.

Overall Value:
The research process is an excellent way to encourage students to think critically about their own learning. Students who have gone through the process find it to be an eye-opening experience about how we have discussions as a class and their individual roles. As one student said, "It helped me because I got a different view from other people. I know that now they can see what I can't see." Finally, the research process need not be limited to discussions about novels. The process can be used to investigate discussions - or any other class activity - in all subject areas. 

Model Research Form:

Matt Wayne taught seventh and eighth grade language arts at the Riis Upper School in Region 9. Currently, Matt is the principal of Dover Elementary School in San Pablo, CA. Matt also serves as an advisor to TNLI San Francisco.

Grade Levels:    4 and up

Subject Areas:
English and all subjects which require discussions.

Read  Matt's Action Research Executive Summary, Rising to the Challenge of High Standards.

Researching Class Discussions

Researcher ______________________ Fish __________ Date ________

We try to use all of these discussion strategies to have a good book talk. 

Strategy  Evidence (Researcher: Check off each time the strategy is used by your partner.)
Proposes a discussion topic.   
Shares ideas about a topic.   
Builds on another person's idea.   
Makes wise connections.   
Uses text to support ideas.   

We try to do the following things to have a good book club meeting.
Researcher: Note how your partner did with the following actions.
1 = little or no evidence of action; 2 = some evidence of action; 
3 = much evidence of action.

Action  Evidence
Tries not to dominate.   
Takes turns speaking.   
Has good body language and eye contact.   
Makes positive comments.   
Pulls others into the discussion.   

 Researcher's Feedback __________________________





Fish's Goal for Next Discussion:

Matt Wayne, Riis Upper School



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