Group of students writing on large piece of chart paper.
Teaching Strategy

Big Paper: Building a Silent Conversation

Students have a written conversation with peers and use silence as a tool to explore a topic in depth.

Published:

At a Glance

Teaching Strategy

Language

English — US
Also available in:
French — FR

Subject

  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12

Overview

About This Teaching Strategy

This discussion strategy uses writing and silence as tools to help students explore a topic in depth. In a Big Paper discussion, students write out their responses to a stimulus, such as a quotation or historical document. This process slows down students’ thinking and gives them an opportunity to focus on the views of others. It also creates a visual record of students’ thoughts and questions that you can refer to later in a course. You can use this strategy both to engage students who are not as likely to participate in a verbal discussion and to help make sure that students who are eager to talk and listen carefully to the ideas of their classmates. After they participate in this activity several times, students’ comfort, confidence, and skill in using this method increases.

 

In a Big Paper activity, students respond silently to a text excerpt or image by writing their comments on a shared paper.

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Procedure

Steps for Implementation

First, you will need to select the “stimulus”—the material that students will respond to. A stimulus might consist of questions, quotations, historical documents, excerpts from novels, poetry, or images. Groups can all be given the same stimulus for discussion, but more often they are each given a different text related to the same theme. This activity works best when students are working in pairs or triads. Each group also needs a sheet of big poster paper that can fit a written conversation and added comments. In the middle of each of these, tape or write the “stimulus” (image, quotation, excerpt, etc.) that will be used to spark the students’ discussion.

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.

Each group receives a Big Paper and each student gets a marker or pen. Some teachers have each student use a different color to make it easier to see the back-and-forth flow of a conversation. 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 topic of the text but can stray 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.

Still working in silence, students leave their groups 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, you can determine the length of time for this step based on the number of Big Papers and your knowledge of the students.

The groups reassemble back at their own Big Paper. They should look at any new 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 the comments their fellow students wrote for them. At this point, you might ask students to take out their journals and identify a question or comment that stands out to them.

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 draw out students' thoughts. The discussion can also touch upon the importance and difficulty of staying silent and students’ level of comfort with this activity.

Variations

With a Little Paper activity, the “stimulus” (question, excerpt, quotation, etc.) is placed in the center of a regular-sized piece of paper. Often, teachers select four to five different “stimuli” and create groups of the same size. Each student begins by commenting on the “stimulus” on his/her Little Paper. After a few minutes, each 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 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 stand out to them from this exercise.

The Big Paper activity can also be structured as a Gallery Walk. In this arrangement, 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 or triads, to a particular Big Paper and then have them switch to the next one after five or ten minutes.

Remote Learning

A virtual Big Paper can be used to help students explore a topic in-depth, slow down their thinking, and focus on the views of others. In a virtual Big Paper discussion, students respond to a stimulus, such as an interview audio clip or historical document, using a collaborative digital-tool (such as a GoogleDoc, Google Jamboard, Padlet, or VoiceThread).

Learning is social, and taking Big Paper online provides an opportunity for students to exchange ideas and extend their thinking. You can use Big Paper to engage students who are not as likely to participate in verbal discussion and to make sure that students who are eager to talk carefully consider others’ ideas. Big Paper also creates a visual record of students’ thoughts and questions that you can refer back to at any time.

Students can complete a virtual Big Paper discussion asynchronously during a defined time period, though you may choose to complete the final debrief of the activity during a synchronous session.

The following questions can help you plan to use a virtual Big Paper:

  1. What collaborative digital tool(s) do I want to use to create a virtual Big Paper?
  2. How am I going to deliver instructions to students about completing the activity?
  3. How often am I going to monitor the discussion?
  4. If teaching asynchronously, what is the defined time period I want to set for completing the activity?
  1. Select a Stimulus for Discussion
    Begin by selecting the “stimulus”—the material that students will respond to during the activity. A stimulus might consist of questions, quotations, historical documents, excerpts from novels, poetry, or images. Audio clips and videos also make great stimuli in an online environment. This activity is best done when students work asynchronously for a defined period of time (1-2 days) in small groups. Each group can either be given the same stimulus or a different stimulus related to the same theme.
  2. Create the Virtual Big Paper
    Create a virtual Big Paper for each group using a collaborative digital tool (such as a GoogleDoc, Google Jamboard, Padlet, or VoiceThread). On each Big Paper, type, embed, or link the stimulus that will be used to spark the students’ discussion.
    Try It Out!
    Visit our Taking Big Paper Online Padlet to post, connect, and experience the tool.

    Visit our Taking Big Paper Online VoiceThread to post, connect, and experience the tool.
  3. Prepare Students
    Determine how you want to introduce your students to the activity (for example, through video or written instructions or during a synchronous meeting). You can adapt and share the Instructions for Students. Assign students to small groups.
  4. Students Comment on Their Group’s Big Paper
    Share the virtual Big Papers with each group. Ask students to post questions and comments on their Big Paper during a defined time period. If a student poses a question on the Big Paper, another should respond. The conversation must start around the text but can stray wherever the students take it. Depending on the tools you use, students can connect a comment to a particular question by drawing lines or including “@” tags.
  5. Students Comment on Other Groups’ Big Papers
    Share each group’s virtual Big Paper with the full class. Still working asynchronously, students read other Big Papers, leaving comments or further questions for thought.
  6. Students Return to Their Group’s Big Paper
    Have students return to their group’s Big Paper and look at any new comments left by others. Ask students to take out their journals and identify a question or comment that stands out to them after reviewing the new comments. (See our teaching strategy Journals in a Remote Learning Environment for guidance on setting up students’ journals during remote learning.)
  7. Debrief
    Finally, debrief the process with students. To debrief asynchronously, create a new virtual discussion space for the whole class. Begin the conversation with a simple prompt such as, “What did you learn from doing this activity?” Use students’ ideas from the Big Papers to draw out students' thoughts and delve deeper into the content.
    You can also debrief the activity during your next synchronous full class meeting.

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