Big Paper - Building a Silent Conversation
This discussion strategy uses writing and silence as tools to help students explore a topic in-depth. Having a written conversation with peers slows down students’ thinking process and gives them an opportunity to focus on the views of others. This strategy also creates a visual record of students’ thoughts and questions that can be referred to later in a course. Using the Big Paper strategy can help engage shy students who are not as likely to participate in a verbal discussion. After using this strategy several times, students’ comfort, confidence, and skill with this method increases.
Step one: Preparation
First, you will need to select the “stimulus” – the material that students will respond to. As the stimulus for a Big Paper activity, teachers have used questions, quotations, historical documents, excerpts from novels, poetry, or images. Groups can be given the same stimulus for discussion, but more often they are given different texts related to the same theme. This activity works best when students are working in pairs or triads. Make sure that all students have a pen or marker. Some teachers have students use different colored markers to make it easier to see the back-and-forth flow of a conversation. Each group also needs a “big paper” (typically a sheet of poster paper) that can fit a written conversation and added comments. In the middle of the page, tape or write the “stimulus” (image, quotation, excerpt, etc.) that will be used to spark the students’ discussion.
Step two: The Importance of Silence
Inform the class that this activity will be completed in silence. All communication is done in writing. Students should be told that they will have time to speak in pairs and in the large groups later. Go over all of the instructions at the beginning so that they do not ask questions during the activity. Also, before the activity starts, the teacher should ask students if they have questions, to minimize the chance that students will interrupt the silence once it has begun. You can also remind students of their task as they begin each new step.
Step three: Comment on Your Big Paper
Each group receives a Big Paper and each student a marker or pen. The groups read the text (or look at the image) in silence. After students have read, they are to comment on the text, and ask questions of each other in writing on the Big Paper. The written conversation must start on the text but can stray to wherever the students take it. If someone in the group writes a question, another member of the group should address the question by writing on the big paper. Students can draw lines connecting a comment to a particular question. Make sure students know that more than one of them can write on the big paper at the same time. The teacher can determine the length of this step, but it should be at least 15 minutes.
Step four: Comment on Other Big Papers
Still working in silence, the students leave their partner and walk around reading the other Big Papers. Students bring their marker or pen with them and can write comments or further questions for thought on other Big Papers. Again, the teacher can determine the length of time for this step based on the number of Big Papers and his/her knowledge of the students.
Step five: Return to Your Own Big Paper
Silence is broken. The pairs rejoin back at their own Big Paper. They should look at any comments written by others. Now they can have a free, verbal conversation about the text, their own comments, what they read on other papers, and comments their fellow students wrote back to them. At this point, you might ask students to take out their journals and identify a question or comment that stands out to them at this moment.
Step six: Class Discussion
Finally, debrief the process with the large group. The conversation can begin with a simple prompt such as, “What did you learn from doing this activity?” This is the time to delve deeper into the content and use ideas on the Big Papers to bring out the students' thoughts. The discussion can also touch upon the importance and difficulty of staying silent and the level of comfort with this activity.
• Little paper: With “Little Paper,” the “stimulus” (question, excerpt, quotation, etc) is placed in the center of a regular sized piece of paper. Often teachers select 4-5 different “stimuli” and create groups of the same size. Each student begins by commenting on the “stimuli” on his/her little paper. After a few minutes, the little paper is passed to the student on the left (or right). This process is repeated until all students have had the opportunity to comment on every little paper. All of this is done in silence, just like the Big Paper activity. Then students review the little paper they had first, noticing comments made by their peers. Finally, small groups have a discussion about the questions and ideas that strike them from this exercise.
• Gallery walk: The Big Paper activity can also be structured as a gallery walk. With this structure, Big Papers are taped to the walls or placed on tables, and students comment on the Big Papers in silence, at their own pace. Sometimes teachers assign students, often in pairs of triads, to a particular Big Paper and then have them switch to the next one after five or ten minutes.