The Hot Seat

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Are you looking for interactive learning structures that will help your students gain a deeper understanding of content while also developing and practicing higher level thinking skills? The Hot Seat is a strategy I’ve used successfully across disciplines with 3rd and 4th grade students. I borrowed it from Jeffrey Wilhelm, a well-known secondary level literacy educator, and modified it for use with elementary students.

The basic idea is that a student plays the role of a character (from a book, from history, or any topic they know well) and takes questions from an audience of classmates. For instance, during a unit in which each student chose an animal to research and study, they took turns on the hot seat “being” their animal and answering questions about their adaptations, survival strategies, and so on. The hot seat technique is great for exploring characters’ motivations. For example, when we read Skeleton Man, we put the character “Molly” on the hot seat and asked her “Why did you keep coming back to your so-called-uncle’s house when your gut told you he wasn’t your uncle?”

I found this structure to be a great way to get students to dig deeper and think about what they were learning. It provided opportunities for students to hone their skill at questioning, making inferences, and supporting opinions with evidence from the text. Plus, it was fun and engaging for the child on the hot seat and for the audience.

However, to use this strategy successfully, you’ll need to lay some groundwork first. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Students have to know how to ask and answer questions, and they should know the difference between questions that have a single, factual answer and questions that require deeper levels of thinking or analysis. I explicitly taught these skills and others such as turn-taking, listening, and referring to a text for evidence to my students. We practiced them in Morning Meeting and at other times as well. If you’d like a guide to teaching fundamental thinking, listening, and speaking skills, I highly recommend the new Responsive Classroom book, The Language of Learning!
  2. Adapt the technique to fit your class and your students. With some classes it makes sense to use the classic “one person in the hot seat, everyone else in the audience” format, but you may want to build up to that by doing it first in small groups. One year I had a class where what worked best were partnerships, with each partner assuming the role of a character and the partners asking each other questions. You may have students who will be more at ease in the hot seat if they are part of a panel instead of being alone in the hot seat. (This format is also great for comparing different points of view on the same question: for instance one year my class interviewed a panel of “founding fathers” when they were researching historical figures such as George Washington, Abigail Adams, and Ben Franklin.)
  3. Before you put students in the hot seat, use Interactive Modeling to show them exactly how it works and what you expect them to do. Just as it does with other procedures, Interactive Modeling give students an opportunity to observe the teacher doing what they will be doing, to notice in detail what is expected of them, and to practice. (If you haven’t thought about using Interactive Modeling to teach academic procedures, here’s an article to check out: “Interactive Modeling for Academic Success.”)

I’d love to hear about interactive learning structures you use in your classroom and what makes them work!

The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, & Speaking Skills provides practical strategies for teaching essential communication skills such as asking thoughtful questions and giving high-quality answers; backing up opinions with reasons and evidence; and agreeing and disagreeing respectfully.

Interactive Modeling: A Powerful Technique for Teaching Children provides step-by-step guidance on how to teach skills, routines, and procedures quickly and efficiently. Includes practical tips, real-life examples, and sample lessons and scripts.

Tracy Mercier is a Responsive Classroom consultant. She has taught grades three, four, and five in diverse classrooms in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Tags: Engaging Academics, Language Arts, Public Speaking

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