When I was in college, I had some wonderful professors (Dawn Duncan and Jim Postema- Concordia College) who not only taught us how to think for ourselves, but also challenged us to teach one another. Recall the phrase, to teach is to learn. This might not seem like a big deal, but to ask sophomores and juniors in college to teach their classmates a novel per week complete with criticism as well as facilitating a conversation for an entire college class period was a daunting task. This is where the fishbowl began.
When I began teaching a senior level English class at Arapahoe, I became frustrated that I was to be the center of their learning. These kids have spent three years listening and watching their teachers teach; why couldn’t they be the expert on a piece of literature? However, I felt that they could not simply teach an entire piece of literature to one another in one week. So one day, I talked to the kids about how I learned in college and the difference it made in my learning to teach something rather than simply sitting back to listen to what my teacher told me to think about a novel. They were truly interested in the challenge of trying out fishbowl. They wanted their education to be different. I sat down and talked with our “new” instructional coach, Ray Hawthorne, and we talked through what changes would be necessary to make this work for high school. I decided that students would need to know how to ask good questions (higher level thinking questions), how to facilitate a conversation while still being able to get their point across, how to manage the classroom, how to look for criticism and understand the criticism they found, as well as actually understand what they read.
After much refinement, discussion, trial and error, and more trial and error as well as feedback from that first group of seniors ( the feedback is essential every year to tweak it to what best benefits the students), the fishbowl emerged.
There have been times it has not worked with a particular group of kids. There have been times it has simply blown my mind to see what they have come up with. [Please make sure to reference the handout as you read this section to understand the layout of the fishbowl] In the beginning, the outer circle merely reacted to the conversation in a journal format (only I would see these reactions). However, now we have many variations to the outer circle. We have also had the students T-note the questions from the inner circle and reacted to these. Other times students used a discussion tracking method keeping track of who said what and the reaction from those statements. Now my classes are live blogging on the outside so that there are actually two separate conversations occurring. Sometimes these conversations intertwine and sometimes they go in two separate directions. Either way, the best part of it is that the students are reacting to one another. I become a participant in their conversation rather than the director. That being said, sometimes I need to be a facilitator. I participate in the conversation with my freshman and sophomores, where with my seniors I stay out of the conversation and become an observer. (Actually this was a request from my first group of seniors who noted that every time I tapped into the conversation, the kids would take what I say as gospel. They thought it best to keep me out and they would grant me the last ten minutes of class to say what I think-they were so generous! I usually negotiate this piece on a class by class basis asking how much they want me to be involved).
How do the kids prepare? There are a few ways: one, the kids decide their own groups and can choose from a set of predetermined dates to present on. By allowing the students to create their own groups, they have more control, autonomy, and decision making ability than with pre-assigned groupings. Two, the kids read their assigned section, meet and discuss on what will be the focus of the conversation. They compose a syllabus for the class discussion which they turn in ahead of time to me for feedback. They must also find criticism to extend, support, or challenge our thinking on their assigned chapters. The criticisms often allow for the students to create great blogging questions for the class to react to after our fishbowls. The classes are often very good at making sure topics from previous discussion are referenced but they tend to hold each other accountable when one topic becomes too repetitive. My freshmen come with their own individual questions - they do not meet as a group ahead of time. They each create three higher-level questions which we post on the blog, write on the chalkboard or change the discussion direction.
As previously stated, teaching the kids good questioning strategies, methods for facilitating a discussion, and frequently asking for their feedback about how it went and what suggestions they have for improvement is so important.