I read aloud, “The main thing to do is pay attention. Pay close attention to everything; notice what no one else notices. Then you’ll know what no one else knows, and that’s always useful.” I close my book and pause dramatically. Silence. I scan the classroom and search for evidence of deep thinking. More than two dozen students squirm in their seats and rifle the pages of their books nervously. “What is the main character referring to in this passage?” I ask slowly and deliberately. Only three hands pop up. Everyone else sits silently.
I’m a humanities teacher. Because one of my passions is nurturing a love of reading in my students, we read at least two novels a year as an entire class. However, over the years I have consistently found that our full-class discussions around these novels favor the involvement of a minority of outgoing, confident students. Hoping to uncover the perspectives of my more reserved students, I informally surveyed them. They told me that they don’t participate in class discussions for a variety of reasons ranging from social anxiety to variations in learning styles. Over the last two years, I’ve addressed the roadblocks to participation by creating an alternative to spoken, full-class discussions. This alternative has ignited the silent majority and created more equitable conversations. I call it graffiti discussion.
I first got the idea for graffiti discussions from a practice, used widely at the High Tech High schools, called chalk talks. Graffiti discussions take the notion of a group brainstorm to a more organized and literary level, incorporating reading comprehension skills. The “discussion” is silent. It takes place in writing on a wall via markers, chalk or sticky notes. The activity invites all students to participate simultaneously and allows them to see and connect their writing to each other’s thoughts. The conversation builds upon itself, allowing students access from multiple points and emphasizes sharing ideas, rather than winning a debate or being “right.” Through graffiti discussions we aim to develop students’ skills and confidence as critical readers. The socially constructed nature of the activity breaks students out of isolation and helps them share interpretations. Students get the opportunity to check their ideas against those of their peers and the teacher.
I have always found that the initial success of a classroom activity is contingent on setting up clear and simple norms. Graffiti discussion begins with these initial agreements:
1. We let our pens do the talking. Graffiti discussions are silent.
2. We take chances with our ideas and don’t worry about being right.
3. We do our best to build on each others’ ideas and lift each other up.
4. Every student adds to the conversation at least once.
As our class practices and improves the process, we revisit these norms and add to them where we see fit.
Graffiti discussions take place while students are silently reading the class novel. Students write questions, connections, passages and comments in their humanities journal and contribute their most compelling ideas to the white board. In order to assure full participation, I float around the class and plant seeds of encouragement, coaxing reluctant students to share their ideas on the wall. The discussions are like rainstorms. They begin with a quiet drizzle (one or two catalysts) and develop into a massive puddle of ideas within half an hour. Students shared their thoughts, using expo-markers, on a whiteboard via the following modes, which they note next to their contribution.
Students may ask a question in order to understand further or push their classmates’ thinking further.
Students may answer anyone’s question. They’re encouraged to use the text as evidence to support their response.
Students may write about a connection they make with the text. It can be a personal experience or something from another book, movie or TV show.
Students can select an important passage from the text that will spark conversation on the white board.
Students can make a comment about a question, answer, connection or significant passage.
I’ve always taken it as a good sign when students approach me before class and ask if we’ll be doing a particular activity. “Will we be doing a graffiti discussion today?” is a common question at my classroom door. Students enjoy the transformation of a typically solitary activity (reading) into a socially interactive activity. One kid explained, “I like graffiti discussions because everybody gets to react and answer each other’s questions instead of writing it on a piece of paper.” But their interest extends beyond social stimulation. Students also note that the activity levels the playing field for everyone and facilitates peer-mentorship. As one student pointed out:
“I think asking questions in graffiti discussion is really good. Because, if a student doesn’t know what to do they can actually just write it on the board and ask them. And another student can come by and answer their questions.”
When we first started graffiti discussions I acted as the sole facilitator— answering questions, monitoring the quality of ideas added to the board and tracking participation. I recently surrendered this facilitation to students. What an idea! Now, students sign up to play the roles of Conversation Captain and Conversation Tracker. These two students, excluded from the day’s reading (which they make up at a later time), run the show.
The Conversation Captain checks the ideas of their classmates, which they have written in their journals, before they are added to the wall. Is the idea clear? If not, the Conversation Captain provides suggestions or asks questions to nurture the development of the idea. This helps our graffiti discussion steer away from one-word contributions. Before we implemented this safe-guard “Cool!” and “Yes” were popular comments. The Conversation Captain also helps direct students to threads that relate to their idea. The Conversation Tracker tallies the students’ participation in the graffiti discussion, marking the names of participants and noting the type of ideas added. At the end of the graffiti discussion, the Conversation Tracker gives a report summarizing the day’s activity and recognizing students who went above and beyond in their participation.
The addition of these roles has helped free me up to provide help for struggling students and has boosted student participation. While one might worry that students would strive for quantity over quality, the student-facilitated discussions have been just as deep and insightful as when I facilitated them.
When I first used graffiti discussions, I struggled to find ways to conclude the activity. We were often left hanging with an amazing cluster of ideas on the class whiteboard that didn’t seem to resolve. Over the course of this school year, I experimented with several conclusion activities.
At the suggestion of my graduate school mentor, I developed a protocol for journaling in response to ideas within the graffiti discussion. During the last 10 minutes of the activity, students browse the ideas we’ve generated, pick a “bright spot” to celebrate and write a response in their journal. A “bright spot” is a thought-provoking question or a strong idea worth celebrating. After journaling, a few students choose to read their entry aloud.
I often use a variant of the journal writing to conclude a graffiti discussion, which involves an oral recap of the activity. I begin by asking the Conversation Tracker to share out the day’s stats, and then to facilitate a discussion with their classmates. We look for four students to share out “bright spots” in our graffiti discussion. Here’s an example of a bright spot that was shared. This thread helped answer a student’s question and sparked a personal connection:
(Students responded to a moment when the protagonists emerge from the underground and see the night sky for the first time)
Question: What are the glowing things in the sky?
Answer #1: Stars.
Answer #2: Stars. The book describes them as little specks of light and they looked like salt.
Quote & Connection: “He was smiling & crying. She realized she was too.” We took my neighbor to my dad’s concert yesterday. She was so excited because she never gets to go out. At the end of the concert she was smiling and crying so much because she was so moved by the music and was thankful for our invitation.
Identifying these types of contributions together helps provide models for future graffiti discussions. These examples push students to try new things and move towards an increasingly connected discussion. Plus, students love to be recognized for their “bright spots.” When another student or a teacher celebrates a third student’s writing to the class, you can feel the love in the room.
Sometimes I am reluctant to end an engaging graffiti discussion to make time for journaling or a bright spot discussion. In these cases, I take photographs of the writing on the board. I then choose one or more ideas for a prompt in the next day’s journal warm-up, which I project onto the screen at the beginning of class. This is a good way to revisit crucial ideas from the previous day’s discussion before continuing with the reading. Students also love to see their writing displayed for all to see and used as a prompt for their classmates. I make sure to give them credit for creating the warm-up.
Throughout the two years I’ve used this approach to literature discussions, I’ve seen remarkable improvements in the quantity and quality of student participation, not to mention the sense of ownership felt by my students. Engagement was heightened simply by the use of expo-markers on the whiteboard and the opportunity to move around. Many students remarked on how much more fun it was to write on the wall than in a journal. The activity also provides students with an audience for their writing, which motivates many of them. I’ve seen many students who self-identify as non-readers emerge as huge enthusiasts of graffiti discussion.
Students also experience a reduction in anxiety throughout the activity. Silently writing amidst a group of students seems less daunting than raising your hand and speaking in front of the whole class. One student pointed this out when she remarked, “You can hear everybody’s voice. Some people are afraid to raise their hand in front of the class because they think it’s not a good idea. But, on the board, you can write it down and it can actually be good.” As a result, those quieter voices that are often lost in whole-class discussions begin to emerge.
Furthermore, graffiti discussions automatically differentiate for a variety of learners. Students are able to read the board and contribute when they are ready, which helps them to develop their ideas and makes sharing safer (much like a pair share or pre-writing exercise). The low-volume nature of the activity also helps students concentrate on their reading and their ideas.
Ultimately, what I love about graffiti discussions is seeing the control within my classroom shift from teacher to students. Traditionally, the class novel read-aloud and lecture is a teacher-centered affair. Students depend on a teacher to ask questions and illuminate meaning from the text. With graffiti discussions, I see my students undertaking these tasks with confidence. Students ask the questions, answer them, find themes and symbolism in the text and help one another to understand the story more deeply. Graffiti discussions have shown me that when students make the shift from “doing” a process to “owning” a process, they can transcend our wildest expectations, and their own.
To learn more about Graffiti Discussions or other work that Bobby and his class
are doing, visit Bobby’s digital portfolio at: