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Friday, March 10, 2017

Turning Online Discussions into Meaningful Class Conversations

Post by: Erin Thomas, High School English Teacher

I am not a techy person by nature. The latest gadgets, fancy apps, and social media aren’t really my thing, so when I decided to commit to being a tech fellow this year, I was nervous about how things would go. One of my biggest concerns was that the technology I brought into the classroom would become a distraction from the actual learning I wanted to take place. My tech coach vehemently assured me that we would only bring in technology when it made sense and would serve to enhance the lesson I had planned.

A couple of weeks ago, I put her assurances to the test. I told her I wanted to find a way to take an online discussion and push it out into the classroom. I was curious if I could find an effective way to make a online discussion meaningful to their person-to-person interactions in class. The lesson series took a total of three days: one day for the online Verso discussion, one for the in-class 4 Corners discussion activity, and one for miscellaneous post recap and reflection which I wanted them to do. More information can be found about this style of discussion in Catlin R. Tucker's Creatively Teach The Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology

I decided to keep the online discussion fairly broad. I had them respond to two questions about the reading, with the goal being to simply get them warmed-up for their in-class discussion. They were asked to make both an initial post with their response to the question, and then one response to one of their peer’s responses.

That night for homework, I had them respond to a Google Form survey HERE which required them to write two open-ended questions based on their online discussion. My plan was to pull at least a few of their questions and use them in the Four Corners discussion in class the following day. This extra step really increased their buy in the day of the Four Corners activity. They were excited to see their questions from the form form filtered into the different rounds of discussion.

The in-class discussion took a fair amount of set-up to get everything into place, so they could participate in the in-class discussion I had in mind. My goal was for them to participate in four different, ten minute discussions, each with its on focus and questions. Each round they would move to a new table and would meet with a new grouping of their peers.

With the help of my amazing tech coach, we set-up a Google Sheets which organized them into groups, rounds and discussion roles. Students were given the Google sheets the day before the in-class discussion, so they could come to class prepared to make the numerous transitions as smoothly as possible. One adjustment I made to this portion of the lesson when I did it the following week with my CP students was to have them write down their assigned roles and rounds on a handout I created. This eliminated some of the issues my honors students had with forgetting where to go. CP Handout

The day of the discussion went great! It was so exciting to see them moving around and interacting with so many of their peers in one class period. My honors students tend to be really strong in discussion, but I had the same level of participation from my CP students a week later. As a teacher, I want to create opportunities for my students to think critically about a text and to articulate that thinking through meaningful discussions. The online discussion, partnered with the in-class Four Corners activity, did just that.

I did do a twenty minute recap of the information covered during the discussion with my students the following day, but it was mainly just a way for me to solidify what I observed them talking about in class. Additionally, I had them complete a final Google Form reflecting on the process HERE , their participation, and the relevance of the online discussion. The feedback they provided was enormously helpful when I went to set the same lesson series up for my CP students. In addition to the adjustment I mentioned earlier, I also chose to eliminate the role of “time keeper”, it felt fairly irrelevant to me during the discussion, and their responses confirmed that thinking.

The vast majority of my students indicated on their Google Form that they preferred this lesson series to the typical Socratic Seminars we have on a fairly regular basis in my class. Many of them shared that they felt more confident participating in this type of discussion, and that having the online discussion in advance of the in-class activity helped them to feel more prepared.

On a purely pedagogical level, I was really pleased with how this lesson turned out. While it was a bit labor intensive to complete all of the set-up required to make the Four Corners discussion run smoothly, it was completely worth it. I was so happy to see my students show how independent they can be of me while having a sophisticated, academic dialogue with their peers. And I was even more excited the following week to watch my CP students find the same success.

I still wouldn't say I am the most "techy" person, but I have learned to really enjoy it. I have seen how it can make a lesson I have planned more dynamic and engaging, while also allowing me to be creative and innovative as a teacher.

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