For the most part, the middle school online student works alone. Many of my students have extracurricular pursuits, and online schooling provides the flexibility they need so they can practice dance eight hours a day, travel to sports games across the state, or volunteer at local museums. Other students choose online school because their local school environment was not a good fit; a frequent reason that popped up in the introductions was bullying. So, for most of my students, their peer-networks are outside of the virtual class or peers were the problem. If I were bullied at school, it would make me think twice about opening up in an online forum to others I did not know.
Unfortunately, when students feel isolated in an online environment, their motivation and participation often decreases. The teacher can do many things to connect with individual students, like giving prompt and personalized feedback, replying to emails quickly, and asking about their own interests. However, middle school students are at the developmental age where they value their peer’s opinions and connections with their peers more than those with adults. Students in an online course need to feel they are a part of a class community; they need to know their ideas and opinions are valuable to and are respected by their peers.
And this is why I am consistently concerned with collaboration and facilitating conversations. Students need to see each other contribute, and they need to see their classmates as valuable members of the community.
Right now, I have three platforms to facilitate this: the discussion board, the synchronous session, and OneNote’s Class Notebook.
Last week, I posted about setting up the Class Notebook, and I looked forward to creating more community during my synchronous session and checking in on my students. Specifically my next steps were
- Poll students to see what their needs and wants are for collaboration and synchronous sessions
- Begin synchronous sessions by having students introduce themselves and include some brain-breaks or off-topic chatter opportunities for students (ideas I got from research)
- Touch base with struggling students
- Page quick “Do this now” OneNote tips
I admit, I tripped a couple times…
Part of giving students voice in any class is also accepting the fact that silence is always a choice. Students should be able to choose to remain silent. We adults and teachers wish they wouldn’t, in fact, we earnestly want to know their opinions, but sometimes, they don’t feel like sharing. You might think some teachers don’t survey students because they fear negative feedback, but I think no feedback is always worse. Silence mediated asynchronously online is harder to interpret because there is always the technology variable. Did students get the message? Did students understand how to submit feedback? Did students get the message in time?
I email students, I post a news announcement, and I’ll page students at least twice about the survey. But in the end, I have to be willing to be happy with the responses I did get.
Last week, I wanted to know how students were doing and what they wanted in the synchronous session, so I created a survey through Google Forms. I would have used Office 365’s new survey tool in Excel, but it does not give you a check-box style answer format. Good polling practices suggest no more than five to ten questions, so I chose three. I also incorporated pictures to make it a little more engaging.
Only five students responded, one fifth of my class, but the feedback was valuable.
I had been neglecting the novel And Then There Were None, because students weren’t required to turn in any work related to the novel yet, but it was clear they all wanted to discuss it. It was also clear students wanted more help with writing and wanted to see more examples during synchronous sessions. And games.
The Synchronous Session
This is where I tripped up regarding my “Next Steps.” I completely forgot to ask students to introduce themselves. The problem was I didn’t prepare for it ahead of time. So, because I know myself well, I went ahead and planned for it now. Students will see this when they join:
Despite this whoops, there were a couple wins. The first is I offered a warm-up for students since I knew I wouldn’t be able to check in with my students until right at 8. From 7:30 to 8:00, I helped moderate a Twitter chat, so I needed something for students to do if they showed up early. I also wanted to use one of the games covered during the week’s professional development, and I wanted to have students have the novel fresh in their minds before discussion. Thus:
After the warm-up, we discussed the novel. Mostly, I asked the questions and gave students time to respond. I think this went well, but I know I can improve my discussion moderating skills. I’d like to start using Socratic Circles, but with a small group attending regularly, I’m not sure how I could make it work. My first thought would be to have the inner circle be within an asynchronous discussion board or OneNote page, and then during the synchronous session have students discuss what they thought about the posts. This seems complex, so I’ll need to work up to it. Perhaps I should start with students preparing questions or quotes they want to discuss and then coach them on ways of responding and asking follow-up questions.
I ended the session by showing several different concluding paragraphs from Malia Wollan’s column “Tip” which appears in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Every column is a “How to” article, but they’re all unusual “How to”s, like “How to Draw a Like a Police Sketch Artist” or “How to Fight Fires From a Plane.” For each column Ms. Wollan interviews an expert in the field, and frequently the column ends with a quote. The point of the exercise was to have students see how writers will sometimes use a formula for their conclusions and to see one way of wrapping up an essay without repeating the introduction.
To prepare, I set up a OneNote page in their Class Notebook with the example paragraphs. During the session, I had students list several things they noticed in the paragraph, and then compare their specific paragraph to the others to look for commonalities.
OneNote Class Notebook
One goal for this week was to encourage students to use the notebook by paging students “Do this now” OneNote tips. I still think it’s a good idea, but to be honest, I completely forgot about it. I will, however, do it this week. I might have better luck, too, since this week isn’t an assignment due date week, so students will not be scrambling to complete two weeks’ worth of assignments. Also, zero students completed any of the prior week’s activities. So, there’s that. Other teachers are piloting the Class Notebook, so I’ll ask about what is working for them.
Following my success with altering the previous discussion board prompt, I did the same for the Etymology Discussion Board. Learning new words can be fun if the words are fun, so what better than showing students Dictionary.coms Your Word Wednesday Winners? What I like about using this random list of words, as opposed to a standard SAT word list, is that by going to the site, students see other people sharing their reasons for suggesting a particular word. Sometimes the rationale is emotional, but other times it focuses on the sound of the word.
“Today’s Word of the Day was chosen by a few people for a variety of reasons. Rheanna B. of Montana said the pronunciation was “quite funny”, while Jasreen G. of Malaysia thought it sounds “serious and sudden.”
Ivan D. of Kansas City remembered it from a talk show many years ago while Marty H. in Washington liked the word after reading it in a World War II book.”
Finally, I wanted to check in with some of my students who were struggling. Some responded, other didn’t. Must try harder this week. Perhaps it’s time for another check-in email?
- Variety on the Etymology Discussion Board: creative sentences and good illustrations of the words.
- Synchronous session discussion
- Send personalized pages and emails to students
- Send “Do this now” OneNote tips
- Have students collaborate on a Poetry Term Scavenger Hunt via the Discussion Board
- Create a OneNote page for students to annotate “The Raven”
- Have student introduce themselves at the beginning of the synchronous session