Children who live in chronic states of stress and trauma often have difficulty coping. In many instances, they respond by creating chaos, because they are trying to control their environment. By creating a disruption, the students are moving their attention away from what is causing them stress and focusing their attention on something external.
In their book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, authors Kristin Souers and Pete Hall identify several measures that teachers can take in the classroom to help minimize the disruptions created by students acting out (p.63-64):
- Prepare students for the beginning of the class or activity. Develop and maintain a consistent, structured routine.
- Support learning for the students who create disruptions. If you have identified a student or two who create chaos, make their desks the first stop in your trip around the room and provide feedback. Circulate back to these students frequently.
- Provide training and support in peer tutoring and cooperative learning. Help students help themselves by creating a classroom network of support.
- Involve disruptive students in the operation of the classroom. Provide an assigned role every day to help these students feel involved.
Have a plan, avoid power struggles, and know your students. Build strong, positive relationships. In so doing, you can help reduce stress, and create a safe environment for yourself and your students.
Children 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):
- Flight: May manifest as withdrawing, fleeing, skipping class, seeming to sleep, avoiding others, hiding or wandering, and becoming disengaged.
- Fight: May manifest as acting out, behaving aggressively, acting silly, exhibiting defiance, being hyperactive, arguing, and screaming/yelling.
- 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.
SPIDER 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
When 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):
- Web grapher: The web grapher creates the graph of the conversation. It requires the student to be attentive to all speakers.
- Three-question asker: The three-question asker is allowed only questions during the discussion and cannot speak any other time.
- 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
- Textual Evidence Leader: The textual evidence leader monitors discussion and keeps the group focused on the text.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Now that you have developed a rubric related to the skills you want to address during discussion and have selected a topic or text for discussion, it is time to introduce SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins provides considerable detail regarding the process (pp. 25-30):
- Introduce the concept to your class. You may wish to show a video of the process. Wiggins shares the following link to one of her 9th grade classes in action: https://youtu.be/jHi06vm5uJk
- Briefly discuss what you see in the video.
- Hand out the rubric and note that this will result in a group grade. Please note that the group grade will not be counted. The goal is to get everyone to work as a team. They need to assess themselves at the end of the session.
- Arrange the room in a circle or oval, so that all students can see one another. The teacher should be positioned away from the circle, but able to see all participants. The teacher will be monitoring the discussion and documenting the process.
- Set a time limit for discussion. The amount of time will vary depending upon the grade level of the students. Ten minutes may be appropriate for elementary students; twenty to thirty minutes may be appropriate for middle school students; and, thirty minutes or greater may be appropriate for high school students.
- Have students put away electronic devices. Laptops and smart phones are great tools for learning, but they often distract from meaningful, community-building discussions.
- Have the students start the discussion.
- The teacher then becomes an observer. The teacher does not intervene in discussion unless there is something harmful or overly upsetting developing. The teacher charts the discussion using a web format. All student names/locations are charted on a piece of paper. A line is drawn from student to student as the discussion is passed around. The teacher codes activities by student names (i.e. a student interrupts, so the teacher puts an I next to the name). Codes are generated by the teacher throughout the observation.
- When the discussion time has ended, the teacher joins the circle for debriefing. The teacher displays the web and allows the students to respond to what they see.
- Using the rubric, the students provide an assessment of their work as a group. They discuss the grade and what can be done differently the next time discussion is held.
While this is a simplistic overview of a very complex classroom activity, it is clear that such a format for student-led discussion can produce powerful learning. I encourage you to view the video of students in action and begin thinking about how you might bring such discussion activities into your classroom. You will find the students learn much and enjoy the process!
When first introducing SPIDER WEB discussions into your classroom, it is best to choose a topic that will get students talking. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins suggests beginning with a stand-alone discussion (discussion can be weaved into units after students have their first experience) and provides the following suggestions related to choosing a topic (pp. 22-24):
- Think student-friendly. Using a topic that is overly academic or content related may be off-putting to students and may damage the ability to use dialogue in the classroom in the future.
- Think multimedia. There are many great multimedia pieces available for viewing or listening that can spark student dialogue. Whether it’s a short film, music video, or spoken word recording, these multimedia presentations can provide tremendous fodder for student engagement.
- Think about questions. A single well-crafted question can get students going.
The possibilities for dialogue starters in the classroom are endless, and the learning from classroom dialogue is powerful and authentic. Be creative as you consider possible topics for your first SPIDER WEB discussion. You will find that you and your students learn much and enjoy the process!