Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fishbowl 101

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.


McBride said...

Anne, I did this the other day and it worked fairly well. I have not assigned a group that is responsible for the discussion questions but I think that I will do that in the future. Instead each person brought questions. This has worked great in a non laptop discusssion but with the laptops and blogging in class SO many separate discussions get going I feel as though there is lack of completeness in the discussion. I did the two circles and it was interesting to see the direction that they both went in but i would like it to be more focused next time.

Also, this was the first time that i participated and not sure if I will next time. I had a great time blogging with them ( didnt feel so disconnected) but it was like bees on honey. They all would responed to a comment that I made immediatly and ignore the previous discussion that they were in. In a sense it reminded me that they still need that teacher focus, but showed how trained they have become in the traditional teacher/student realtionship.

Lane C. said...

McBride I think that is a valid point. As a student in an honors english class I would agree that having the teacher be a part of the conversation detracts somewhat from the discussion. I would say that a teacher could serve as a guide to the conversation to ensure focus and order while the students decide what they discuss and for how long or how in depth they go with a certain subject.

Victoria said...


I am currently teaching an 8th grade Gifted Seminar class. We (teachers of the seminars across three middle schools) have decided to use Socratic Seminars in our classes with 8th and 9th grade students. After the first run-through with the Socratic Seminar, I was somewhat disappointed in the results. Even though I shared the rubric with the students ahead of time, I still have many who barely participated and contributed to the discussion. Their first discussion focused on an article by Thomas Friedman, "Anxious in America." The students read the article and prepared questions and notes to bring to the seminar. But, if I wasn't there to facilitate and guide the discussion, I don't think it would have continued for more than ten minutes.

Your fishbowl method is very similar to Socratic Seminar. Do you have any suggestions or tips to share that I could use to help my students?

annes said...

Victoria- to me, the one thing I have learned is that there are times where it takes a lot longer to get the kids to take control of the conversation and so there needs to be a lot of facilitation and debriefing on your part to move them forward. Also, before we do fishbowl for the first time, I model for them what it is like to be a good presenter and a good discusser and at the same time, debriefing afterwards with them what they took away, what suggestions do they have for improvement and so on. Hopefully that helps.

marry said...

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

Media Dissertation

Clark said...

Imagine if each student got a free laptop in school and you are allowed to use it. It’s an outstanding idea because it has learning games that can give your teacher a break, it can help you understand technology and I can leave a comment on my classmates or teachers’ blog on our school’s website. I bet laptops will make school ten times better.

xinyuan; said...


I came across your blog via Wikipedia's article about Fishbowl as a form of conversation and thought it's really fascinating. My friends and I are hoping to try it out some time :) thanks for sharing this on the Internet!

-A student