Don’t Pander to the Pandemic – Keep Students Talking in Your Virtual Classroom

I was reading an article on achievethecore.org entitled Fostering Academic Discussion Online (https://achievethecore.org/aligned/fostering-academic-discussion-online/) and it really inspired me to get more deliberate about generating student discussion in my online classes. 

Discussion has been an important part of my instruction for many years. In 2017 I went to the Dr. Douglas Fisher keynote at the Tri-Association Annual Educators’ Conference in Costa Rica and Fisher really wowed me when he said “When it comes to class discussions, the one who is talking the most is the one who is learning.” At that moment, I started to reflect on how much talking in my class was being done by me versus by my students. Years later, just when I had really flipped the numbers and was getting my kids more engaged, COVID came along and my classes went virtual. It was back to square one in terms of discussions. Since last April, when my school building closed and our classes moved online, I have been developing new pathways for students to share their thoughts.

One of my strategies (taken right from the above article) is to spark discussions by providing students with opportunities to talk about more social, non-academic topics. My online classes are limited in time, so I build in social talk time into my homeroom block. There, I make sure students have time, and tools, to talk about whatever comes up. We have talked about the recent election results, sports, favorite foods, and who got the most sleep during the weekend. Students can share verbally, or through our Zoom chat – and chat comments can be either anonymous or eponymous, whichever onymous the student is most comfortable with. And, if a student shares something private, I make an effort to bring up their idea. But, I never reveal their identity. By including lots of discussion time in our homeroom block, I normalize conversations and interaction. So, when we move to our class block, students are primed to continue their involvement. 

However, I still need to be more deliberate when utilizing discussion in my virtual classes. As outlined in the above achievethecore.org article, I need to prep my students in advance to ensure we get the most out of our conversations. One strategy I plan to try is providing students with the discussion questions prior to our discussions. This, along with providing a variety of sentence frames, helps struggling students get prepared for an idea exchange. The article also suggested sharing the discussion expectations in advance. This is something I regularly did – I have an engagement tracking sheet and I present it on camera to students before and during our discussions, showing them how I put checks next to their names everytime they participate. 

The ideas developed in a class conversation shouldn’t be left hanging there afterwards. Try to include them in subsequent discussions, activities, or assessments. Sometimes I jot down notes when students share particularly insightful comments. I return to them in later discussions, when an appropriate opening emerges. However, I never identify the person who made the original comment – I will leave it to them to step forward. 

One final step I like to take to foster conversations among my students is to involve their parents. This is especially important during a lockdown as family members could be the only human beings that our students interact with on a day-to-day basis. I regularly send emails home telling parents what we are up to in class, highlighting any interesting discussion topics. I encourage parents to bring up these topics at the dinner table, to continue the face-to-face idea sharing.  Parent feedback about this endeavor has been very positive – parents are really interested in knowing what their children are learning, and the compelling topics I use usually result in great family interaction. 

I hope you aren’t pandering to the pandemic. I hope you are finding ways to get your online students engaging in their learning. If you have any other ideas in your repertoire, not mentioned here, please share them. 

Take care out there!

Ed X!

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