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04.22.14Putting the ‘Great’ in Gatsby: Beth Verrilli’s Disciplined Discussion

Robert-Redford-The-Great-gatsby-1974Screening video this week, I was reminded of some posts from earlier this year on keeping discussions “disciplined”… that is, “inside the box” and on-topic. They’re, here  here and here in case you missed them, but the idea is that true discussion happens when a group identifies key topics and develops them rigorously and at some depth before jumping on to new topics.  If each new speaker talks about a new idea, it’s not so much a discussion as a bunch of people talking aloud in the classroom. But how do you make focus happen in a discussion, especially if you’re not going to step in and mediate between every speaker?

I was thinking of this as I watched lessons this week and wanted to share a couple of additional ways, small but useful, to help build “discipline” during discussion.  They came from observing Beth Verilli of North Star High School, who was reading The Great Gatsby with her 12th graders.  She started the discussion by framing a couple of key questions and writing them on the board.  She described them as “big ideas we came up with when we were reading chapter three,” which was nice as it gave her students agency and ownership over the topics they’d discuss and communicated that their ideas were substantive.  But it also said, “There are some key things we are focusing on here. We have a purpose.”

“We looked at how [Gatsby] was trying to connect with Nick in an informal, casual way. We talked about how he was also trying to communicate his wealth to Nick, and we wondered whether he was hiding something behind that wealth.  Today we’re going to focus on close reading pages 65-67, the story he tells Nick on the way to the restaurant, and see if it helps us build these arguments even further.”

It’s a smart move to help students know what the goal is in their discussion- that way they can steer their own comments to relate to those key points. When you set a compass direction, everyone can self-correct.  It’s also smart to start off observing that you’ll be close reading and covering just two pages of the book in a lesson. It not only helps students to focus their comments on a manageable part of the book, it intimates a depth of study that also influences how students participate.

Beth then gave her students one minute to review the pages in question with the specific discussion goals in mind.  Again everything here is signaling intentionality and focus- the idea that a discussion has a purpose and therefore that comments can be more germane if they address that purpose.

She intimated that again as she asked for the discussion to begin: “Of those three arguments, what do you see happening here?” she asked. “Remember you’re trying to build on each others’ examples and comments.”

“Sierra, do you want to start?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s about the third thing, about him trying to hide something behind his wealth,” the student noted, referring to a paragraph on page 65 where there were several intimations of Nick’s discomfort with Gatsby.

Then, my favorite line from the lesson:  Beth said, “So let’s stick with that paragraph.  Any other interpretations?”  That parameter, “Let’s stick with that paragraph,” was simple but powerful. It implied: “There are no limits on your opinions; I want you to think independently and deeply. But there are limitations on topics. We’re going to stick with this section and how we make sense of it until further notice.” All of a sudden the discussion will be cohesive and organized around the explication of a key section of the text rather than a free-flowing exercise in interpretations supported by scatter-shot elements from anywhere.

And Beth’s students responded. The next two comments focused on different readings of Gatsby’s line, “Look here old sport, what’s your opinion of me anyhow?” and what it suggested about him.  In fact, the entire discussion was sustained in focus, rigorous and productive. A beautiful outcome and not, close inspection reveals, an accidental one. It also showed the power of Close Reading to influence discussion in a positive way, grounding it in a finite but important section of text.

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