Lots of teachers have lately been talking about how much “scaffolding” is necessary for a good discussion. There are lots of ways to answer a question, but a quick thought is that some texts lend themselves to a more free-ranging discussion, where I feel very little impulse to try to nudge them in a particular direction. These texts (or problems) tend to be within the comprehension level of the students, i.e. the reading itself isn’t that difficult. Thus the ideas, and connections tend to be my goal with the assignment. I still want them grounded in the text, but the text itself isn’t an obstacle. Those are great days to just let the students go: they can own the trajectory and weave their way to what interests them. As long as they are using the text, they can’t be too far from a fruitful direction. And then there are the tough texts. Supreme court cases, political philosophy, cultural commentary. Here, it is more imperative that the students understand exactly what the text says before they start to interpret it. The idea here is that a teacher might give more leading questions in getting them to collectively comprehend the text, and then let them open things up to a wider-ranging discussion. To me the main thing is 1. my strategies will change on any given day because of the assignment and the context of that assignment in the course and 2. even if they are figuring out what the text says, they are still the ones doing the heavy lifting. I find that it is often worth the time to have them simply work on What is the author saying? and How does the author build his/her case? before launching into analysis. (Or, if they do launch in, I might pull them back to these questions to slow things down a bit and let them get their feet under them). It makes sense to mix things up depending on the text.
A couple “scaffolding” ideas:
(These all come from US History, but you get the idea. I will ask colleagues in other departments for similar ideas and add those to a subsequent post):
Worksheet to get chronology straight for coming of WWI. This I have just had them do when they come into class – with the idea of keeping them grounded in the events and chronology as we open up the discussion.
Supreme Court cases reading guide (Lochner and Muller) They might do this as they read and go over it in partners when we start class.
Lincoln-Douglas Debates reading guide. Two people, multiple issues, several debates in different locations. This sheet is pretty plain, but is meant to keep the students from conflating it all. They would do this while doing the reading. I give the verbal prompt to note which debate is the source of the evidence they are writing down.
Brutus and Federalist #10 reading guide For me, we cover these two documents in two consecutive classes. These are important concepts for my US history course, but they come in tough documents (particularly Fed10), so I have them fill they out as they read, but we go over it as a group before delving into what we think of Madison’s argument. We tend to use the board a lot for a document like Fed10.