Teacher to teacher

Protocols that foster student interaction

It’s a challenge to make sure students are doing meaningful work while also giving them opportunities to engage with one another. Throughout my career as a history teacher, I’ve found success using educational protocols to help my students interact.

Protocols are structured classroom activities that come with their own sets of step-by-step guidelines to facilitate student interaction. The educational protocols I use in my classroom — such as gallery walks, the plant-the-seed protocol and the block party protocol — allow students to take ownership of their learning and develop a deeper understanding of content.

When I began using educational protocols in my classroom, the first step was creating an environment where students feel comfortable and excited to facilitate learning. I introduced this idea by initiating a student-led “do now.” Individual students facilitate classroom discussions by leading their classmates through a turn-and-talk followed immediately by a share-out.

The most important idea here is the ability for students to connect with one another. They build rapport with each other and confidence in themselves. It’s not always easy to trust our students to step up and facilitate discussion, but I’ve found it to be worth the initial risk.

Because I wanted my classroom to be more student-centered, I looked for ways for my students to engage in cooperative learning. One of my favorite cooperative learning protocols is the gallery walk. I provide each group of students with its own text, image, political cartoon or quote. Then I give each group a specific task, such as analyzing images of child labor during the Gilded Age. I ask students to make inferences and observations about the images and respond to a question or prompt by recording information on chart paper or post-its.

Once groups have finished, they position their work around the classroom and the gallery walk begins. Students move around the classroom to explore each other’s work and record their responses and feedback on different-colored post-its. We finish with a full class share-out of their thoughts about the lesson, the protocol and the feedback they received.

My students have grown incredibly fond of another protocol known as “planting the seed.” I provide students with a text that they are required to read and annotate. Then students choose two selections from the text that they find meaningful. They write one on each side of their paper. Then they mingle with their classmates, discussing the quotations they selected. They record their partner’s response on their page and switch papers for the opportunity to discuss new selections and record responses to those. They continue to mingle for another two rounds before returning the paper to the original partner.

This protocol works well with primary source documents in U.S. history. We used this protocol to interpret constitutional amendments: Each student was assigned one of the three different Reconstruction Era amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th).

The plant-the-seed protocol allows students to see how different quotations can be interpreted in a variety of ways — growing their interpretations of the text. This strategy has given them the opportunity to collaborate with classmates while also engaging with rigorous content.

One of the great parts of this protocol is that it allows for differentiation. I can provide different texts, targeted questions on graphic organizers to steer discussion and even speaking prompts for English language learners or other students who need them.

A similar protocol that is rooted in student discussion is the block party protocol. Students again read and annotate a document. Then they mingle with their classmates to discuss the text and their specific annotations.

When I use this protocol, I focus on the discussion that is taking place, rather than making students record their responses. The block party protocol leads to fantastic conversations between students, who may feel less pressure when chatting with classmates rather than speaking in front of the whole class. To take this protocol to the next level, I strongly recommend adding a written summary at the end of the lesson to track student learning.

In the age of student-centered classrooms, it’s important to find the educational protocols that best meet your students’ needs. Once you have found those protocols, use them consistently, modify them as needed and enjoy the experience of fostering learning at a new level.

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