Talking Chips Lead to Deeper Level Literature Discussions in Middle School

Walking into the classroom, the tables were set and the chips were down in three even rows of three (3×3) and the question was asked if you were Rachael Landau, determine what you are going to do only having enough money to pay for the safety of one of your children.

Talking chips — a Kagan cooperative learning strategy — is used to challenge students to analyze and synthesize information at a deeper level.

The past instructional class periods, students have delved into Alan Gratz’s Refugee, a historical fiction novel told from three different perspectives who were escaping violence in their own country. The topic was infiltrated with numerous informational texts on refugees, immigration reform, DACA, and a Skype interview with a NGO that supports refugees. Each child has a vested interest in the well being of the fictional characters as the story was really occurring all over the world in a similar fashion.

Cooperative Learning Environments

Students came prepared to discuss the atrocity happening to Josef Landau and the other refugees as the book was coming to the resolution. Each group was broken into four or five students (and maybe a teacher as I like to bounce around to multiple groups). Students are given nine different poker chips with a logo that stands for a discussion stem intended to direct students to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the literature. Students are assigned informal roles: leader (person who begins the conversation) and contributors (those who support the conversation).

Each student listens with an earnest interest that makes any teacher excited because it suggest they really want to understand the inner workings of the selected passage. As one’s interest is piqued, a student can support dig deeper into the discussion by throwing in a chip and saying I’m In as he/she adds to the discussion following one of the lines from the talking chip. For example, a student can connect a component of the text to the outside world and explain the connection or a peer can clarify an idea being stated by placing it in their own words.

After modeling and working with students using all the nine talking chips, students begin to develop a unique trust and honesty within their discussion groups. It is touching to see students explain their views about a text in an open forum and see them defend their beliefs while some classmates may challenge those same beliefs. It allows them to have a deeper understanding in their own learning and challenges them to reflect upon their own thoughts. As a year goes on, I get to watch students deepen their understanding of literature.


Student gain an interdependence on one another as each person brings a unique perspective to the discussion while students are creating a climate of respect for one another’s ideas in their small groups. Students benefit from hearing others ideas and gain insight they may not have previously looked into before. Furthermore, students are presented an opportunity to support or disagree a particular viewpoint. Often students are not asked their opinions and views, and talking chips is fully student centered discussion.


There are only nine chips given during a discussion to each child. Individuals who are heavy on their words are limited to those nine opportunities. It may sound like a lot, but some students can dominate a conversation and leave others disengaged. When the chips are down, there is no more discussion from that group mates. Occasionally, I will call on the individual with the most chips left to summarize their discussion to keep all students actively engaged.

Interpersonal Skills

Placing a child in a small group alone does not create magic; it’s a process that needs supported and scaffolded. Collaboration skills must be identifies and practices within  the context of meaningful academic literature. I love seeing students being able to step back and reflect upon their ideas with another group of students.

Earlier in the year, my co-teacher and I model taking detailed notes during our short story series analyzing the responses of the antagonist. This process challenges students to thoroughly look at a character’s behavior and support their actions using text evidence. In the process, students learn to kindly disagree with one another and ask questions to understand the texts at a deeper level.

Knowing about Knowing

During the instruction, I maneuver in and out of groups discussing the reading, but also why they used a certain tactic to share their reasoning. For instance, ask a student as Isabel struggles with her grief: “She wished she was dead too. She wished she was dead so they would put her into the water with him. So she could keep him company in the deep.” Why did you use that chip over another one?

This is where metacognition begins to lurk into student learning; students begin to have an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Students are beginning to understand why they think a certain way to showcase a deeper idea to a classmate.

Implementation of Talking Chips

  1. Start with three chips if you are worried about so many options!
  2. Model the way with a small group and allow others to watch. Stop and trade in students when you are modeling — ensure all students get into the rotation model!
  3. And, don’t be afraid os students controlling the conversation. It is OK not to be talking as the teacher!
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Review: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe

HarperCollins Publishing, 2018, 373 pages; Grades: 8-12; ISBN 9780062885203

Norris Kaplan, a witty Black French Canadian, is transplanted into an Austin, Texas high school culture experiencing the nuances of the American culture. Battling the awkward daily interactions of a high schooler, Norris’ cynical attitude in the scorching Texas heat makes him sweat (literally) and doesn’t always fare well with his new classmates full of cheerleaders, jocks, loners, and the girl of his dreams.

Highly educated in many ways, Norris struggles interacting with his peers while his mother constantly nags him not to let his mouth get him in trouble. Learning the American teenage culture leads Norris to unexpected friendships and hardships leaving him unsure of where he belongs in the world — Austin or back in Canada.

Norris is a comical high school student who any reader that around high school students will give a hearty smirk towards. His insights lets you see the mindset of how high school students think and respond in high school moments. He is an inspiration  to challenge the status quo and seek for understanding how teenagers operate in today’s culture.

Recommend: Yes, purchase this title for 8th grade or above. A struggling high school reader could easily relate to this novel.

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