Tangled Webs

It’s been more than a decade, but I still remember how excited I felt at the prospect of being a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school. As a first year, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to be TAs yet – for our first year, we were supposed to take classes, read, and write. Incredibly exciting, but teaching – teaching seemed like the place to be. When I finally got into the classroom in my second year, it was amazing and scary.

auditorium benches chairs class
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My sense from six years of graduate school in history is that many graduate programs don’t do a good job of training grad students to be teachers. That’s obviously a generalization, and to be fair, the Teaching Center at my school tried. They offered workshops and strategies for getting feedback on your teaching. The professors for whom I TA’d always worked hard to train us on discussion strategies, and once or twice I got to lecture. I learned a lot about how to grade, and I learned a lot from being in the classroom, but it’s really been the last seven years where I’ve found the range of resources and support to help me

text on shelf
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become a better teacher each year.

Each year when classes start again, it’s always exciting to think about how I’ll approach a topic in a new way, or try out a new technique. My school holds a conference each June focused on teaching, and the sessions there have been incredible resources. I’ve managed to take some online classes that helped with content and teaching strategies over the years, I have access to a library with an excellent range of professional development materials, and on top of that, watching my colleagues at work and sharing ideas with them has helped me think about teaching in a plethora of new ways.

Teaching is all about finding the strategies that are effective for you and your students at any given point in time. For the past couple of years, I was focused on how to teach research to students; since last year, I’ve also thought a lot about how to help students engage with reading nonfiction effectively. This year, though, my primary goal is to expand engagement in the classroom, particularly in student discussion.

Enter Spider Web Discussions.

I heard about these sometime last year, but didn’t go beyond ordering the book, setting it at my bedside, and forgetting about it for months. It’s a strategy developed by Alexis Wiggins, building off the Harkness method that some schools use. My school doesn’t use Harkness, but the center piece of that is student-led discussion, which sounded appealing. At our school’s conference this past June, Wiggins came and led a session specifically on Spider Web Discussions.

Here’s how they work:

In a Spider Web Discussion, the students sit in a circle and discuss a text or question. Th teacher remains outside of this discussion, on the sidelines, and does NOT get involved during the conversation. This doesn’t mean the teacher isn’t paying attention.

Instead, the teacher tracks the conversation. You create a diagram of your students as they sit around the circle, and as they talk, you draw lines across the diagram, indicating the flow of the conversation. You can also take notes and shorthand for things that happen in the conversation, like a T to indicate a student made a textual reference.

Once the conversation concludes – an ending determined by a pre-determined length of time, like 30 minutes, then you debrief as a class.

To see this in action, check out this seven-minute video of Wiggins and one of her classes. Below, an image of a spider web discussion web, via Dayna Laur.


Spider Web discussion as a name is part acronym and part description. The web part is what you see above – a visualization of the conversation. The SPIDER part breaks down this way:

S ynergetic – a collaborative, group effort with a single group grade
p rocess – a process that must be practiced and honed
i ndependent – students work independently; teacher observes and gives feedback
d eveloped – a developed, sustained discussion that aims to “get somewhere”
xploration – an exploration of ideas, texts, or questions through discussion
with a
r ubric – a clear, specific rubric against which the students can self-assess

The rubric is fantastic; in a Spider Web discussion, one of the goals is that every student will participate, and that they will help each other participate as well. It shouldn’t be about a single student or group of students dominating the conversation and leaving others behind. When done well, it’s collaborative, and there’s so much that students can do with this approach.

The sample video above comes from a class midway through the year. My classes don’t look like that yet, but one of the most helpful things I learned from Wiggins was the basic idea that this takes time and practice.

This year, I decided to dive in on the first day of school. Our first-day classes are about 35 minutes, which is technically too short for a good spider web discussion, but I decided that made a good starting point. Following Wiggins’ advice in the workshop I took and in her book The Best Class You Never Taught, I started by showing the students that clip of Wiggins’ class, showed them the rubric, and then kicked it off by having them watch a short video that is really a great conversation starter.

I gave them 10 minutes to talk, and they didn’t know in that time that I was diagramming their conversation. In every class, they talked and talked and talked. They would have KEPT talking, and what I could tell in those ten minutes was that they were interested, they were engaged, and they’d learned a heck of a lot about symbolism from their  previous English teachers. Then I showed them the web I’d drawn from their conversations, and they thought it was pretty cool.

In the month since then, I’ve kept at it. We did Spider web discussions pretty much every day for the first week and a half, varying the lengths and approaches. On the second class of the school year, my honors students got more out of the summer reading in their 35-minute conversation than I’d ever had students uncover before with just a call-and-response discussion approach or group work approach.

I’m finding that when I set my students free in this format to discuss what they’ve read/been studying, they ask more questions, explore history more deeply, and generally seem to get more out of class than I’ve seen before.

Whether you teach high school or college, if you have smaller class sizes (ie: not a lecture of 40-100+ students), I’d highly encourage you to explore this format. It works really well in my classes of 16 or fewer students, but can also work in classes of 20-30 students. Wiggins offers some strategies for larger classes that are worth considering.

It’s not perfect: I’m only now figuring out how to work in annotations, how to get the webs back to students so they can learn from them, and how to run a debrief/wrap-up that really helps us bring things together. And, while my sophomore honors students can do these really well, my ninth grade class needs a bit more hand-holding right now, but they’ll get there. All told, however, spider web discussions have been an encouraging way for me to start my year, and I’m excited to see where my students take this.

To learn more, check out the links embedded above, or see Alexis Wiggins’ resources, including rubrics, here.

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