Facilitating Student-Led Seminar Discussions with The Piano Lesson
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August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson readily invites students to ask a number of questions—big and
small—about the characters, setting, conflict, and symbols in the work. After reading the first act,
students learn how to create effective discussion questions and then put them to use in student-led
seminar discussions after act 1 and again at the end of the play.
From Theory to Practice
In advocating for an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning about literature, Mark Ensrud
suggests that mundane questions about due dates and classroom procedures are "hardly the kinds of
questions we teachers hope for" (79). To develop students' ability to ask questions that facilitate studentled
seminar discussions, Ensrud shares this framework with students: "Opening questions begin a
discussion and invite a reexamination of the text. Closed-ended questions seek particular information,
while open-ended questions invite authentic inquiry. And core questions attempt to get at the meaning
of a text" (80). The ability to conceive of questions of these four types forms the basis for an introduction
to inquiry-based student-led seminars about literature.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson or another similarly rich text with clear structural divisions to facilitate phases of inquiry.
- Copies of August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson or another similarly rich text with clear
structural divisions to facilitate phases of inquiry.
- Text Wondering Chart
- Description of Question Types
- Seminar Questions for act 1 of The Piano Lesson
- Guidelines for Participating in a Seminar
- Seminar Reflection Questions
- Review a work that your students have recently read and prepare a list of example
questions that correspond with the Description of Question Types.
- Make copies and transparencies of necessary handouts.
- create a variety of questions for acts 1 and 2 of The Piano Lesson, understanding the type of each question and the implications for how each might be answered.
- participate in two student-led seminars, focusing on appropriate seminar behaviors.
- Before beginning act 1 of The Piano Lesson, provide each student with a copy of the Text Wondering Chart. Explain that the class will be reading the play, and instead of stopping for discussion when the teacher decides—or answering study guide questions—they will be recording what they wonder about as they read.
- Tell students to use the left-hand column to record a few important words from the text and the corresponding page number (don’t worry about writing an entire sentence or a complete line of dialogue); use the right hand column to record their question. They should not worry about trying to be impressive or profound with their questions. Rather, encourage them to simply record what they wonder about as the class reads the play.
- Assign parts and begin reading. Stop occasionally to give students a chance to update their chart. Extend the reading and questioning period into another session as necessary.
- After the class has read act 1, explain that in a future session, they will be participating in a student-led seminar in which they will discuss the play using questions they develop.
- Provide students with copies of the Description of Question Types handout: opening, closed-ended, open-ended, and core.
- Discuss the types of questions and, if possible, provide examples from a different work that students have recently read and discussed.
- Explain to students that they will be using the wonderings from the previous session(s) to formulate a number of questions of each type. They will use those questions as the start of the process, but they do not need to limit themselves to what they have already written.
- Split the class into small groups and ask them to first share all the questions they wrote. Then, they should use the Description of Question Types handout and examples you shared to try to gain consensus on questions that fulfill each type. For any types that they have no questions, they should try to develop at least one, perhaps by revising a question they already wrote.
- Close the session by bringing the groups back together and sharing some of the questions they discussed. Provide feedback as students share, clarifying the ways in which their questions do and do not meet the criteria for the various question types. Be sure to point out that every question has merit, and do not be overly critical of mislabels. The spirit of inquiry is the important part; labels and categories are merely the means to that end.
- If students have difficulty with a certain question type or need teacher-provided models, share examples from the Seminar Questions for act 1 of The Piano Lesson.
- Explain to students that in the next session, they will engage in a student-led discussion of the questions they developed.
- Begin the session by reminding students of the work they did in generating and categorizing the four types of questions about The Piano Lesson. Explain to them that today they will be facilitating a conversation about act 1 using the questions from the previous session.
- Ask them to freewrite for a few minutes on the characteristics of effective class discussions in which they have participated, as well as the qualities of some discussions that they have found frustrating.
- Facilitate a conversation in which the class generates a list of norms for participation in discussion; use the Guidelines for Participating in a Seminar if students have difficulty describing an effective conversation about literature. Ask students to provide explanations or further clarification for any points of confusion on behaviors they agree to enact.
- Arrange the class into two concentric circles. Students sitting in the inner circle for this session will engage in conversation around the inquiry questions from the previous sessions. Students in the outer circle are responsible for taking notes and summarizing the conversation for the students in the inner circle.
- Leave one seat in the inner circle for a student from the outer circle to join in from time to time.
- Remind students that they should try to cover a variety of different types of questions. When they are deciding if or when to move on to a new question, they should consider whether it is an open- or closed-ended question; they should also ask if everyone is ready to move on.
- As students discuss, take note of participation patterns and the types of questions and discussions that follow. Provide support only when it is necessary, in the form of redirecting off topic talk, reminding students to use evidence, encouraging students to challenge each other respectfully, and disallowing quick glosses over complex questions and ideas.
- At the end of the session, facilitate a conversation that allows students to reflect on the content and process of the student-led discussion:
- What important aspects of the play did we discuss today?
- How well did we do taking turns and respecting each others’ interpretations and ideas?
- What big questions did we not have time to discuss?
- What can we do to do better next time?
- Explain that they will use these reflections to improve performance for the next seminar discussion, in which the two circles will switch places.
- If possible, divide the group roughly into groups of eight to facilitate reading groups for act 2.
- Review the Description of Question Types, and, if you feel it would be useful, distribute a copy of the Text Wondering Chart to each student.
- Explain that each group will read act 2 and stop occasionally to form a variety of questions of each type to prepare for a seminar discussion.
- Circulate among the groups and remind students that their charge is to create questions, not to answer them. They should discuss what questions are worth asking, the most effective way to phrase a question, and decide the type of each question.
- Monitor the progress of the groups and arrange for additional sessions for students to complete the reading of act 2.
- After students have finished the play, tell students that they will be participating in another student-led seminar. Reverse the participation roles, having students who were in the inner circle last time observe this discussion, and vice versa.
- Observe the discussion students generate, again taking a limited participant role if students get stuck or if they need a particular transition strategy modeled.
- At the end of the session, ask students to complete a set of Seminar Reflection Questions.
- If students are used to a more teacher-led approach to discussing literature, they will need time
to grow and adjust to a student-centered approach. Allow for multiple opportunities with the
approach across a range of text types and levels of difficulty.
- Experiment with grouping. Some classes may function well in whole-group seminars; others
may thrive in the set-up described in the lesson; still others may enjoy much smaller discussions
of four or five students. Observe carefully and collect feedback after every iteration to get a sense
of what works best.
- Successful student-led seminar discussions naturally lead to student-selected writing. At the end
of the work, as students to select the most intriguing question that was asked. Have them
summarize the diverse responses of their classmates and then share their answer, using
references to the text as appropriate.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- After the informal discussion in Session Three, you may need to make adjustments for the second
seminar discussion. For example, it may be useful to select—or seek a volunteer for—a
discussion leader who takes more formal responsibility for topic shifts.
- Use student responses to the Seminar Reflection Questions to guide future teaching and learning
about seminars. As students become more adept with participating in a seminar, provide
reflection questions that continue to challenge students to improve.
- Some classes may need additional guidance and structure to feel comfortable with student-led
seminars. If you feel this is the case, construct with students a list of more specific discussion
behaviors that are desirable. Use this list to create a performance rubric or checklist for you or
students to use during future discussions until they can function without it.