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Teacher Tip for Generating Class Discussion: Play Pass the Hat

written by: Jessica Cook • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 1/6/2012

If you want your students to participate in class discussion, try this teaching tip. Instead of looking out at a sea of blank stares from silent students, you will have students talking about the topic at hand with enthusiasm. Generate positive classroom discussions and manage your classroom well.

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    Silent Students No More!

    Before I became a teacher, I always dreamed about having students who would be passionate about literature. I envisioned that they would come into my classroom every day, eager to learn more and to talk about the insights they found in their nightly reading.

    My first year was a major reality check, how about yours?

    Instead of eager, talkative, students, they were bored, silent ones. My students "hated reading," (who knew such people existed?) and hated talking about reading even more. I knew that they weren't fully comprehending every aspect of the literature I assigned, but I couldn't get them to ask questions in class or talk about it with their peers.

    Hence, the reason I created this article to pass a valuable teacher tip on to my colleagues far and wide. Enter the pass-the-hat strategy. No more silent students!

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    How to Pass the Hat

    I call this the "pass-the-hat" strategy because it's a catchy title. In reality, I passed a paper maché vase one of my homeroom students had made for me. The point is, you can pass whatever you have.

    The first time I tried this strategy was when I taught To Kill a Mockingbird in my 10th grade English class. My students didn't LOVE the book, but they didn't HATE it either, so that was a plus. I knew there were parts of the novel they didn't understand, because when I asked direct questions they would look at me with confusion or give an incorrect answer. But I couldn't get them to talk about the novel voluntarily.

    So, I tried a new trick. I gave every student a scrap piece of paper, post-it note sized. I told them to write their names on the paper, along with a question about last night's reading or a topic they wanted to discuss in the novel. Having them write their names meant I could grade all of them on their participation in this activity. It also kept them from leaving the papers blank or writing stupid, unrelated comments about body odors (high school kids wouldn't do that, would they?). I told them that their comments would be anonymous to the rest of the class, and the names were just for me.

    Then I went around the room with my vase, and I collected their papers. I came back to the front of the class and pulled the papers out one at a time, reading them aloud (but not divulging the names). Then, as a class, we would answer the questions or discuss the topics on the papers.

    At first, I had to directly call on students to answer the questions or contribute to the topic. But eventually, they started to participate voluntarily. The papers gave us a starting point, so that no kid felt he had to raise his hand and ask a question in front of a jury of his peers. They received answers to their questions, and I was happy for the discussion. We all benefited, and we got through that novel unit with a better understanding of the book and each other.