The Inspiration

About a year ago, I was inspired by a blog post, Fishbowl 101″,  that offered an exciting chronicle of how one teacher used this medium for student-centered discussions for student engagement and for building a community of learners using face to face conversations as well as virtual tools for supporting and extending these discussions.   When I initially shared this medium for learning with our faculty last year,  I did not receive any responses, but when I approached  Lisa Kennedy and Susan Lester, two of our English teachers, at the beginning of this academic year about trying the Fishbowl, both eagerly agreed to give it a try to see if it could be a medium for increasing student engagement in the context of content area study.

Context and Purpose for the Fishbowl

Kennedy has just finished incorporating the Fishbowl method into her unit on Romanticism with her Honors American Literature juniors; I’ve embedded her student handout with guidelines for groups, guiding questions she provided the groups, and her rubrics; these materials were based on the document created by Anne and posted from the Learning and Laptops blog entry.

Kennedy Fishbowl Discussion Points System September-October 2011

We have just started using it with Lester’s class to support mixed literature circle/inquiry groups of students who are reading a variety of novels and nonfiction texts.  While I have not had the opportunity to observe Kennedy’s students, I actually had the pleasure of facilitating one of two groups from Lester’s class this past Friday;  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the students and watching them connect ideas as they engaged in conversation.  I was impressed with the way students interacted and the directions they took with the conversation once they relaxed and opened up the discussion.  Below I’ve embedded the initial document Lester and I created together to prepare them in advance of the first Fishbowl meeting that we had this past Friday.

Initial Student Feedback and Future Variations for Extending Fishbowl Talk

The initial student responses from both classes (11th Honors American Literature/Composition and 10th Honors American Literature/Composition) have been favorable, and we are looking closely at student work and feedback to tweak the process.  You can see the initial round of feedback from Kennedy’s students embedded below; Lester’s students will complete their initial responses to our first fishbowl meeting on Tuesday via our class blog.

Kennedy is contemplating incorporating live blogging into the next round of Fishbowl discussions as her students seem to enjoy incorporating visual elements into their conversations and have indicated having an archive of the discussions could be helpful; we’re looking at using CoverItLive or Google Docs as the liveblogging and archiving tool (see the great photo below from Dean Shareski’s photostream).

CC image via

My cohort that I facilitated in Lester’s class is interested in having a “cohort” blog for extending and sustaining conversations outside of the face to face fishbowl meeting.    Although I would be the administrator of these blogs, the two cohort blogs for Lester’s class would be set up so that students could take ownership of initiating discussion threads and moderating the discussions.   I hope to have more to share about these spaces for learning for both course sections  in the upcoming weeks.

Challenge:  The Tension of Teacher Directed Discussion and Student Generated Discourse

One of the initial major challenges I’ve observed/experienced in helping facilitate the classes from a planning standpoint and from personal observation is the tension between a desire to scaffold students’ conversation in an effort to “guide” them to a meaningful conversation and the desire to give students more ownership of the discussions (in terms of content, questions, talking points) is one that is not always easy to negotiate.  In my research on incorporating the Fishbowl method as a part of classroom discourse, I discovered this challenge  is not unique.   There is a fine line between “coaching” and modeling for students and not leaving enough openness for authentic discussion.    As some of my colleagues on Twitter also pointed out, we as teachers sometimes find it difficult to let go and let students learn from failure and/or missteps as they learn by doing.   This challenge is one I hope to further explore  with Kennedy and Lester as we try to “let go” and make our instruction and approach to learning more student-led and inquiry driven.

Your Experiences?

If you have been or are using the Fishbowl for class discussions and networked learning, I’d love to hear about what is working for your students and any insights you could share from your experiences.   If you have resources to recommend for my resource list on the Fishbowl, I welcome your suggestions.