Month: February 2018

Increasing Awareness of Students and Trauma

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teacher comforting studentChildren in our classroom often face issues of substance abuse in the home, parental separation and/or divorce, mental illness in the home, domestic violence, suicidal household members, death of a parent or other loved one, parental incarceration, abuse, and neglect. These experiences, as well as numerous others, often exceed a child’s ability to cope, causing stress and releasing toxic levels of fight, flight, or freeze hormones into the brain. The end result is a traumatic experience that impacts their ability to function in a variety of settings.


In their book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, authors Kristin Souers and Pete Hall identify several ways trauma manifests itself in students in our classrooms (p.29):

  1. Flight:   May manifest as withdrawing, fleeing, skipping class, seeming to sleep, avoiding others, hiding or wandering, and becoming disengaged.
  2. Fight: May manifest as acting out, behaving aggressively, acting silly, exhibiting defiance, being hyperactive, arguing, and screaming/yelling.
  3. Freeze: May manifest as exhibiting numbness, refusing to answer, refusing to get needs met, giving a blank look, and feeling unable to move or act.

Students who are manifesting the effect of trauma need a safe and predictable classroom, as well as skills to manage their feelings. Take your increased awareness of students dealing with trauma into your planning for next week. Be aware of their needs and your response to them. Become that safe and trustworthy adult that they need in their lives.

Benefits of SPIDER WEB Discussion

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students dicsussing with teacherSPIDER WEB discussion in the classroom increases student engagement and provides a vehicle for improving student skills in the area of dialogue. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins notes the following additional benefits of regularly employing the SPIDER WEB discussion practice that she has observed in her own classroom (pp. 132-141):

  1. Better Assessment Data on Individual Students: All the coding involved in monitoring discussion and creating the web graph provides teachers with a tremendous amount of data on individual students. That data makes it easier to identify things students do well and things that need improvement.
  2. Increase in Homework Completion: Students generally do no want to look bad in front of their peers, so they will do homework in order to meet the participation requirements. Students understand that for a SPIDER WEB to work, all strands must be firmly attached. No one wants to be the weak strand.
  3. An Ethical and Safe Classroom Environment: Since SPIDER WEB discussion results in a group grade, students are more willing to step out of their typical behavior to participate (i.e. the students who are shy are more willing to speak, and the students who are overly talkative are more willing to sit back and listen). Students are more willing to ask good, open-ended questions, often questioning thoughts and beliefs that may have otherwise been taboo in class (i.e. race, religion, beliefs, values, and the like).
  4. Greater Student Autonomy: Students are frequently their own best teacher. SPIDER WEB discussion gives students voice in their learning process, and it allows the students to learn from each other, which allows the teacher to take on a coaching role.
  5. Opportunities for Greater Equity: SPIDER WEB discussion lends itself to equal participation in class. This helps students of all varieties find a voice in the classroom. SPIDER WEB discussion can be enhanced by allowing students to write questions and responses for sharing discussion, further strengthening writing for all students.

SPIDER WEB discussion, as a pedagogical practice, can be regularly used in classrooms of all grade levels and content areas. Over time, students and teachers are likely to become more comfortable with the process, thus increasing student engagement and voice. Keep trying the practice in your classroom. You and your students will learn much in the process!

Assigning Roles in SPIDER WEB Discussion

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student taking notesWhen implementing SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, you may find a class or student who proves to be especially challenging. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins suggests assigning roles to individuals or groups of students to help overcome some of the challenges. Wiggins identifies the following helpful roles (pp. 106-107):

  1. Web grapher: The web grapher creates the graph of the conversation. It requires the student to be attentive to all speakers.
  2. Three-question asker: The three-question asker is allowed only questions during the discussion and cannot speak any other time.
  3. Key Passage Leader: The key passage leader identifies two to four pieces of text for discussion and analysis. It may be useful to assign this role ahead of the discussion
  4. Textual Evidence Leader: The textual evidence leader monitors discussion and keeps the group focused on the text.
  5. Rubric Leader: The rubric leader helps everyone be aware of the rubric items throughout the discussion and guides toward completion of all rubric tasks. This individual is only allowed to speak once or twice during the middle or end of the discussion to keep people focused on the goals.
  6. Host: The host invites student into the discussion. The host is aware of who has not spoken and encourages them to speak through the use of engaging questions.
  7. Vocabulary/Literary Terms Leader: The vocabulary/literary terms leader is to have a hard copy of the literary terms and make sure that at least one new term is used during the discussion. The new term may be introduced by the vocabulary/literary terms leader or another participant.
  8. Feedback giver: The feedback giver is the only silent participant during the discussion. The feedback giver only speaks during debriefing.

These roles are suggested by Wiggins. As you employ SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, you may find some of these roles are unnecessary and others may need to be created. The more you tailor the methodology to your classroom, the more engaging it will become for you and your students!

The Shy, The Superstar, and the SPIDER WEB

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shy superstar image

While many students will find a SPIDER WEB discussion to be an enjoyable break from the traditional classroom structure, some students may have trouble navigating the new paradigm. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins identifies two types of students who may have difficulty adjusting to the new classroom dynamic: students how are shy and students who are superstars. Shy students, while they may have great insight to share, are often more comfortable with their thoughts and will avoid participating in discussion. Superstars often have the urge to share every thought and do their best to dominate discussion. So how do classroom teachers help students who are shy and students who are superstars become part of the larger, collaborative discussion? Wiggins suggests the following (pp. 70-91):

  1. Openly address the issue of the difficulties faced by both the shy and superstar students. Keep reminding everyone of the goal: to have a deep, interesting discussion as a team.
  2. Give all students a few minutes to quietly reflect on the topic and write things down prior to discussion. This will help all students, whether shy or superstar, focus their thinking and provide them with some discussion points.
  3. Provide quality feedback based upon the rubric. The rubric is there to help students learn what is important in a collaborative team. Let all students know how they are doing and provide ways to improve.
  4. Keep trying. Patience, persistence, and self-assessment will help develop student skills and yield a balanced discussion.

As you implement SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, be aware of those students who might find the non-traditional structure to be uncomfortable and provide supports necessary to improve participation. Your students will appreciate your efforts, and you will all learn much about one another in the process!