In the Fishbowl

Okay, raise your hand if you have witnessed partners conferring on writing drafts like this:

Student A: I liked it. It was cool.

Student B: Thanks. I liked yours too.

Teacher: Don’t forget to be specific!

Long pause

Student A: I liked when you said that thing about your dog.

Anyone? Anyone?

You’re not alone.

One way to tackle this is a fishbowl. In a fishbowl, you’ll generally have a kid, or a partnership, or a group in the center of the class, having a conference or book club discussion or some other component of your workshop, while the rest of the class watches, with some sort of purpose in mind.  There are a million and one ways to use this discussion strategy, but if you want to use a fishbowl specifically to highlight what works in discussion, you’ll want to focus the class to listen to the speakers not for their content, but for their process. (Some teachers do this same work with a video of kids discussing, if they feel like their class isn’t quite ready to demo it themselves, or hasn’t practiced that particular skill yet).

Recently I sat in on a fishbowl activity in an 8th grade classroom in the Bronx. Lynn Harrison, the teacher, wanted to set kids up to have more productive partner conferences, and so she asked two girls to model this for the class while their peers watched and listened for phrases and actions that made the conference work.

Meanwhile, I was watching for what made the activity work. Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Prep the kids in advance! It’s okay if it’s a little bit staged – that’s better than it being a complete disaster.
  2. Set up the rest of the class to watch for exactly what you want them to see. For instance, you could ask some, or all, of the kids to watch for what the partners say (jotting down specific phrases that seemed helpful), what the partners do (like eye contact, active listening, and the like), what the partners seem to have done in advance (like thinking of questions or troublesome parts they want help with).
  3. Remember that you’re doing this so that the rest of your class can be independently doing the same level of work later – so don’t participate, or jump in to “save” the discussion. If the kids demonstrate imperfectly, it’s fine! But if you have to heavily intervene in order to make it work, then the rest of the class will expect that level of intervention when it’s their turn to try.
  4. Make sure your fishbowlers speak loudly enough for everyone to hear! You might even teach kids a non-verbal cue to use as observers when they can’t hear the speakers (like Shana describes here)
  5. Debrief afterwards – lightly. Try to collect some of the key phrases or actions that the students notice on a chart, and resist the urge to personally point out every last thing that was done well.

Have you done this in your classroom? How did you make it productive?

5 thoughts on “In the Fishbowl

  1. Katy–Love this! As you know, I am a huge fan of Socratic Seminars. Recently, a teacher I’ve been working with added a helpful twist: the observers use a rubric to score The Whole Inner Group. He added this component to ensure that students would speak more collaboratively and advocate for/prompt one another more vigorously. In the next week or so, I will be posting more about this on my TLC Blog and Website. Cheers, SarahT.


  2. We are not sure how you missed it either, Ryan! You are one of the most ‘in the know’ guys that we know. No matter, now you do and we are so excited to have one more forum to think with you.


  3. Pingback: Sorting Out Talk | Turn and Talk

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