Having a whole-class conversation might seem easier than it actually is. I was in a colleague’s 5th grade classroom last year, and I watched her sit at her desk, grading homework assignments, while she instructed her students to talk about the latest CNN Student News that they watched. They walked to the front of the classroom, sat down in a circle and I watched in awe as one student took the floor and spoke, and then other students agreed or disagreed and provided insight to their thoughts. The teacher was not facilitating it at all, but occasionally jumped in to authentically participate in the conversation.
This is an advanced whole-class conversation, and in order to get to this point, there are many foundational aspects that need to be in place. First of all, as the teacher, you need to prepare the students with academic discourse, specifically guidelines and sentence frames. The guidelines are pretty consistent for all circles: one person speaks at a time, everyone’s opinion is valuable, don’t yuck someone’s yum (speak respectfully of and to all opinions), stay on topic, speak from your heart, etc. Possible sentence frames vary with each conversation. I recently had a whole-class conversation where students looked at a map that showed where certain spiders lived and in what populations, and they were prompted to discuss where they would want to live. Some frames that I used included: I would want to live____ because____. I agree with ____ because _____. On the map it shows_____ so I think______. I disagree with _____ because____.
As you might have noticed, the only time the teacher was involved here was in the preparation. I teach 3rd grade and my students have not mastered having a conversation on their own, but they have become more successful. My part is usually one where I refocus the conversation, or where I add an opposing viewpoint, or change my viewpoint, depending on where I want the conversation to go. The thing about whole-class conversations is that you really never know where the conversation will go, but if you have a teaching goal, you can always end the conversation with that, as a transition into the next lesson.