Saturday, March 6, 2010

"What’s a Fishbowl?"

That was a question that I have answered a lot lately from my students and from other students as they pass by my class and see laptops, students talking, and two different circles formed by desks. At Arapahoe one of the many awesome things I learned was a Fishbowl style discussion, only in a 21st Century way. Many people are familiar with the traditional style Fishbowl discussion with the inner circle talking and everyone in the outer circle facing the inner circle (IE where the Fishbowl name comes from) and writing down notes and comments about what is being said. At Arapahoe it was very familiar to engage in this discussion, but with a slight change - laptops. The students in the outer circle were not only typing their notes on the computer, but they were having a conversation in real time with each other in the outer circle. It was a technique that I learned how to facilitate during student teaching and it was something I knew I wanted to bring into my own classroom at the right time.

That right time happened last month when the 10th graders began studying The Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I finally had the class in a place where the expectations, respect, and trust level I desired allowed me to introduce the concept of a Fishbowl. At first the students were a bit confused with having an inner circle and an outer circle and what each one was going to be doing, but once I set it up and we had a mock Fishbowl over a different reading in class it made sense. I explained the point values for grading purposes and the different roles - presenting, discussing, and being a member of the outer circle. I also made sure to clarify what my role specifically as a teacher was and that I am not leading or driving the train, but I will put it back on the track if it strays too far away.

At first students were a bit skeptical of how it was going to work. The first one we did over PT Indian was not the greatest. The inner circle really focused on having their own discussion and the outer circle their own too. Not really a bad thing, but that was only half of the idea. I really wanted to see students jumping from one circle to the other, either by physically moving or by seeing the comments of the outer circle on the SMART Board. Students in the outer circle also had a hard time keeping up with the variety of different conversations going on. I was surprised about this. I thought this generation, even more so than me, was supposed to be good at multitasking. So I had to demonstrate to a few students how to pay attention whether you are in the inner or the outer circle.

After a few more conversations with students about what an appropriate comment is and how they are to act in a Fishbowl, as I was creating the culture here, the students have actually been very successful with the discussion method lately. I enjoy that this style allows the students a voice, a structured time where they are given the class to direct and lead in whatever way they desire (this also happens at other times, but it is really awesome to see it during a Fishbowl). I also enjoy the fact that there are basically three (and often times more) conversations going on at once - the inner circle, the dialogue going on between the inner commenting on the outer circle, and the outer circle having their own various conversations. I really appreciate how this method of discussion is much more effective than a Socratic style one when where only one person is talking. Here there are so many different conversations going on at once and they all complement each other that is impressive to see.

From a technology point I set-up a class blog using Blogger and then use a neat piece of real time discussion software called Cover It Live to moderate the outer circle discussion. This software has built-in controls to allow you as the moderator to control what is published in the discussion by approving, sending private messages (For example, reminding students to spell their words correctly), and blocking users from commenting at all. Plus, this software has instantaneous posting, meaning as soon as the students send in their thoughts and I approve them they appear in the blog - something the students enjoy. This piece of software is currently blocked by our district filter, but I am working with them to unblock it so that it is easier to use in the future. Something in the imbed code for the blog triggers a block, even though the homepage is open.

In the end it is a lot of work to set-up the computers for my students, go around the filter, and spend the time setting up the blog and setting up the discussion, but in the end I believe this 21st Century Style of discussion is more relevant, engaging, and productive than some other form. But don’t take my word, check out the students’ last Fishbowl here.

Now my students do not ask “What’s a Fishbowl,” but instead they ask, “When is the next Fishbowl?”