Autonomous Research, Communication, & Action

Students love Fishbowls and they have so much fun they don't ever realize how much they are learning. Teachers love fishbowls because students are forced to learn and think before they speak. Fishbowls are also a great way for students to develop research, communications skills, and autonomy. In a fishbowl, students research, disseminate knowledge, discuss, and write editorials expressing their point of view. Despite all the hard work fishbowls require, at the end of the year my students' only complaint is that they didn't get enough of them. Scroll down to read all about how the fishbowl works, and to find our regular fishbowl topic updates.

Here's How It Works

Day One - in class - 30-60 minutes

Pick the topic

You can pick your own topic: capital punishment, immigration, same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, stem cell research or some other topic that is currently being debated by our fellow citizens that your students and you will find interesting, engaging, and important.

You guide students, letting them choose between good topics. To let the students have a controlled choice, I like to put a list of four good topics on board. Then as a class, we discuss the pros and cons of each topic and I guide them towards the topic I want. Then we vote as a class (I get 4 votes). Majority rules.

Critical Issues

We have addressed the following critical issues this year. After you have learned about each topic, lead your students in a fishbowl discussion.

Confederate Monuments

Presidential Pardon of Joe Arpaio

DACA and Dreamers

Foreign Aid

Freedom from/of Religion


Follow the links below to a few fishbowl topics that have worked particularly well in past years. 

Death Penalty
Freedom of Speech
Equality of Opportunity
US Foreign Policy

Or you can let the students pick their own topic. This maximizes student autonomy, but also the risk of a topic that's a dud. If you do let the students pick, you should still have a hand in the decision, guiding them towards more fruitful topics - where there will be some disagreement and also some agreement. Let the students individually list three topics they’d like to fishbowl, about then move them into small groups to discuss which of their topics will create more productive learning and discussion. Finally list the small group choices on the board and then discuss the merits of the topics with the whole class and then vote.

Day One - begun in class and then completed for homework


Students work by themselves to research our topic, then make a substantive, illuminating, data-rich, fact-filled post to our class website, (if you don't have a class website where students can edit, you could let them post their research on a classroom bulletin board, or on twitter followed by the hashtag #fishbowl. Posts should be factual, informative, and illuminating, and could come in the form of a chart, graph, map, infographic, cartoon, video, editorial, or report. Students know that they will be evaluated on their post.

*If your class does not have access to the internet, students may cut out graphs, charts, or articles to physically post on a class bulletin board.

You can follow the links below to the research my students have done about the following topics. 

Death Penalty
Freedom of Speech
Equality of Opportunity
US Foreign Policy

Day Two – in class - 20 minutes


Students should read through their colleagues' posts. Each student should respond with a thoughtful and respectful question to at least three of your classmates’ posts. This can be done online or on a classroom bulletin board, where students write their comments on post-it-notes which they leave below their colleagues' posts on the bulletin board.

Day Three – in class - 60 minutes


Students will come to class with a list of points to make and questions to ask.

During the fishbowl, class will be arranged in two circles; a small circle of four (inside) and a large circle of the rest of the class (outside). Students inside the fishbowl may read from notes, talk, ask, discuss. Students outside the fishbowl may NOT talk at all. Outsiders may, however, tweet any questions or comments followed by the hashtag #fishbowl. These tweets may be projected on classroom overhead screen.

*Classrooms without internet may employ a student runner who picks up questions and comments from students (they raise their hands silently) and writes the comments on the chalk/whiteboard.

The goal of each student is to make a thoughtful comment or raise an insightful question in our classroom fishbowl. Teachers should take notes on our class discussion to evaluate each students' level/quality of participation. The goal of the teacher is to be quiet and to only ask questions if a student makes inappropriate comments or if the class falls into a prolonged silence. Students are forewarned that they will only be allowed to stay in class if they are quiet when appropriate (outside the fishbowl) and vocal when appropriate (inside the fishbowl). If you are ejected from class, you will receive a zero for your participation grade. Everyone must speak at least once in the fishbowl. (Optionally, you may prod silent students into fishbowling by saying you will penalize the entire class five points per mute student. I've threatened that before, but I've never actually had to deduct points.) A student may only return to the middle and speak again after each student has participated in the fishbowl. Students must tag-out a student to switch places with them on the inside of the fishbowl. Students may only tag-out a student who has already spoken. 

 Here's the observation sheet I give to each student to complete during the fishbowl.

Day Three – homework


Students write a post-debate Editorial about the topic. Their goal is to persuade the reader of their position. They must use at least one source from student research in their editorial.

 Here's the grading rubric I give to each student to guide their writing.

Day Four – in class - 30 minutes


First we debrief by going over the fishbowl observation sheet and discussing the best fishbowlers, best comments, who has had their opinion changed by the fishbowl. Then we share student editorials. Before students turn in their editorial, we spend some class time to share our writing. Students may share their editorial aloud in small groups, which then select the top editorial to have shared with the whole class. Discuss. We end class by repeating the day one activity of picking the next topic.

Engagement Extension

Day Five – in class - 60 minutes


Students take action regarding the topic. They can create, join, persuade, write a letter to editor, start a petition on, create a campus teach-in, start a facebook page, write a poem, submit a letter to the editor, make posters to put up around campus, pen a short story, post a video, start a tumblr, make visual art, write a manifesto, chalk the campus, write your congressperson or the president, write an article for your school newspaper, join or start an interest group, spread the word, hold a rally or protest, lobby the legislature. Students should work alone or in small groups, write their goals, conceive an action plan, and then share their proposal with class. Students will be evaluated based on their creativity, persuasion, and efficacy. Students will work together or alone in class to begin their project. They will document and share their project results with class at a later date. 

 Here's the grading rubric I give to each student to guide their action.

Click on the button below to download the fishbowl rules.

Learn more about our exciting professional development on using fishbowls to nurture student autonomy, communication, and engagement.

Sample Fishbowls

Fishbowl #1 - Confederate Monuments


Should Confederate monuments and statues be removed from public spaces?



Our Confederate Monuments Lesson has all the facts, charts, and data you need to get started.

Fishbowl # 2 - Presidential Pardon of Joe Arpaio


Should Donald J. Trump have pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio?



Our Presidential Pardon Lesson has all the facts, charts, and data you need to get started.

Fishbowl # 3 - DACA - Make America Immegreat Again!


Should DACA be ended or should Dreamers be allowed to work, study, and live in the U.S.?



Our DACA Lesson has all the facts, charts, and data you need to get started.

Fishbowl #4 - Equality of Opportunity


Do we have equality of opportunity in the US?

In other words, does everyone have the same opportunity, the same chance to make it, the same starting position regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or what region you are from in America today?
Think about different how demographics impact various areas of our life such as employment, wealth, education, life expectancy, health care, and housing. Here is a great resource on equality of opportunity in the US.



Here's some resources to help you get started

Opportunity Agenda

The Deck is Stacked


Once you've done your research, post any charts, questions, answers, facts, links, embedded cartoons, video, pictures, charts, graphs, posts, data, information, ideas on our classroom bulletin board or classroom wiki prior to our fishbowl. The more illuminating, thorough, empathetic, thoughtful, informative your post, the better our fishbowl and the better your grade.
Here's a chart full of the research on inequality that my students posted on our class wiki.