Colorful Questioning: Student-Led Discussions

Shai D Klima, Kettle Moraine High School, klimas @

By nature, English teachers are talkers: We talk about books, writing, our students. And our students are talkers, forever discussing what’s happening in their own lives, on social media, on television. As a talker, I’ve always been interested in how best to harness my suburban high school students’ natural gift of gab and make it a classroom-worthy activity connected to the novels and non-fiction that I teach.

The answer began to develop while I was earning my 316 license from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In Reading 702: Reading Across the Curriculum, I was introduced to a colorful Question/Answer relationship strategy developed by Billmeyer (2006): student-generated Red, White, Blue and Gold questions. Students create book-club worthy questions as they work in groups to discuss texts. They then divide these questions into colored categories: those whose answers come from the text (red), think and search across the text (white), ask-the-author inferences (blue), and connections to self/world (gold). (More of the work regarding how this technique is useful in the classroom can be found on the Prezi created for that course).

My own students are familiar with literature circles as created by Daniels (2002) because we facilitate them in language arts classes from upper elementary school through high school, and they are familiar with the roles and the turn-taking included in good book-club discussions. What my students needed was a way to use their discussion skills and roles for more meaningful interaction with higher level critical thinking, building “thought-provoking questions [that] can transform students from passive learners to active, curious learners” (Billmeyer, 2006, p. 131). In order to do this, I needed to connect their ability to talk with their ability to think.

Initial Lesson
I began with what my students know, that is, the difference between a thin question (with little to discuss) and a fat question (open to interpretations) because this is the language used in my district. I gave groups of 4 to 5 a set of Post-it notes and asked them to construct one fat and one thin question after reading Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.” Each group easily wrote these and checked each other’s work. For example, they sorted questions like “According to the poem, what happened to Annabel Lee?” as thin because the poem gives all readers the same answer (that she is killed by a “chill” from the “wind” [15]). They also know that readers might infer as fat the questions that sustain various answers, such as “What is the mental state of the speaker in this poem?”

Next, I used Google Slides and the tip sheet to introduce the four color questions. Afterward, my students learned how to write each type, recognize the questions as listeners, and sort these questions into the four-square grid, then practiced producing each one for “Annabel Lee”:


They discovered that not all questions fit neatly into one of the four boxes. These multi-color questions are very elusive as they invite multiple ways to respond at several levels. For example, a white/blue/gold question such as “ What comment is Poe making about Christianity by using multiple allusions to it in the poem?” asks the students to probe the text for multiple examples of these allusions, consider why the poet might use these, and how these hint at the theme of Poe’s own religious views. In the book club speaking role, these multi-color questions allow for depth of thought and the ability to build on their peers’ responses in order to elicit further discussion. As listeners and responders, they have various ways to respond, giving them multicolor options to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation.

Group Discussion Procedures
For our next class meeting, they wrote six discussion questions on Post-it notes to be used in small group Socratic circles.


Before discussion begins, they set personal goals for their participation, listening, or other meaningful contributions. I ask them to write these down above the debrief questions on our outside-circle grid. While in the inner circle, they record their peers’ responses to questions they ask, pushing for variety and complexity. Outside circle members also record ideas in the four areas: what they agree with, disagree with/see differently, what provokes them, and what they wish to discuss further.


Self Score: Select a score window that fits how you performed today. Justify your scoring by explaining what you did that earns this score. Contrast your choice against the other options. You may write in only one box in each criteria!


Group discussions follow the Socratic seminar “fishbowl” style. On the day of discussion, students come with colored questions revolving around a specific text quote/reference.


Discussion begins with about 8 students in an inner circle for 12-15 minutes, with all others listening outside the circle. Everyone has an opportunity to be part of the small discussion circle during our 90-minute block. As part of the discussion, I expect all members, whether in the inner discussion or the outer circle, to take notes on what they hear. This approach is two-fold: they will have a record of new learning acquired during the discussion, and I will capture questions or comments to share during debriefing with the large group, done after all small circles have finished their discussions.

While they are discussing, I am assessing their engagement using the spider-web technique (Wiggins, 2017) in order to grade them in the same targets that they will self-assess after discussion: preparation, listening/note-taking, and participation. I often reveal the webs I create between small-circle discussions, informally assessing what we are doing well and where changes could be made for the next discussion group. Students also get a copy of the web from their small-circle discussion session so they have the visual graphic of their work, including the labeled ideas I am tracking.


Post Discussion and Next Steps
After small group discussion, the students assess themselves in two ways: first, their performance, and second, the overall flow/discussion process. By setting their personal goals at the start of the session, they give written assessment of that goal, and they assess procedures, time allotments, or other processes involved in the day’s discussions. Finally, they assess themselves and justify their scoring in the three target areas that I also assess. Giving students their webs helps them see what they can do to create realistic goals for their next discussions because their assessment of strengths and weaknesses directly impacts the processes and flow in future sessions, and these suggestions track their own growth from session to session.

I read and reflect on these processes, including what needs to be adjusted or retaught, as well as how to develop the next session’s challenges. I have gotten some of the best insights about what students need or where sessions are lacking from their feedback. In turn, I share their feedback with them and discuss how I will make changes for future sessions. Some of the best challenges that I have gotten include how to organize our use of time and the number of students involved in each small discussion. Two thought-provoking suggestions stand out. First, they felt that they were unable to really “know” what they were doing as they were discussing because they could not objectively see their own work until it was shown in post-session webs.

In essence, we add a middle circle of peers who record what their partner did during the session as a contributor and listener. I found a form that helped peer coaches map their partner’s work and coach areas for improvement. We ran the timed session with one “coaching” break, when they could help each other see what was working well and what changes they might make in order to increase their effectiveness and scores. This has helped them consider their own interpersonal skills and has furthered their metacognition and evaluation of each other during discussion.


Another technique that I developed because of feedback was discussion “Uno.”


Students said that depth and time spent on each question was too short. They felt as though group members were more interested in getting through as many questions as possible rather than on deeper contemplation of the text. I implemented a common language for them to create stronger supplemental questions, using ideas borrowed from the specialty cards in the game Uno: They could ask each other to “skip” to another part of the text to prove their response, could “draw two” conclusions about their thinking, “reverse” their thinking and try to prove the opposite view, or come up with a provable “wild card” reading of the text. These skills became part of later discussions, helping students spend more time on individual questions and push each other for deeper thinking.

The discussions have begun to harness the power of talk. Students know that their goals matter and that the feedback they get from one another and from me has potential for implementation. This means that they possess the power to make meaning of the texts we encounter and how we work together to encounter what is meaningful. How we discuss texts allows us to play with the format of the class, its procedures, and the knowledge that comes from discussions. As talkers, this feels like meaningful, worthwhile discussion of their own and each other’s thinking. As a teacher, I get to respond to their needs and talk to them about both the books we share, and also how we share them. Talking about texts becomes playful, student-centered, and a natural extension of the human desire to talk with purpose.

Billmeyer, R. (2006). Strategies to engage the mind of the learner: Building strategic learners (2nd ed.). Omaha: Rachel & Associates.

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voices and choices in book clubs and reading groups. (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Poe, E. A. (n.d.). Annabel Lee. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

Wiggins, A. (2017). The best class you never taught: How spider web discussions can turn students into learning leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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