Before the Thanksgiving Break, I wrote I would recap the last few weeks in three sections: discussion boards, synchronous sessions, and collaboration. The previous post, Talking Discussions acknowledged how students post and reply according to scripts and how teachers can change their scripts and ask them to go beyond the script with meaningful contributions and projects.
Now, I’ll discuss the bane of my online teaching experience: the synchronous session. Not because I love to hate it, but because I hate how much I love it. They’re a mystery: Who will show up? Will technology work? How much structured chaos can I engineer to facilitate learning while also making it comprehensible? And finally, how can I coach students how to use the tools so they will know how to communicate in a digitally networked world?
I have much to say about this subject, but for now, here’s an overview of the sessions I conducted at the end of the semester.
And Then There Were None novel Review
In my post from October 26, I shared this strategy-based game I had hoped to use.
On October 29, I tried it out. Overall, the experience was not bad, but it could have been better.
First, the game did effectively review the novel by using questions. It failed because it didn’t balance strategy, chance, and content knowledge.
The premise of the game is students answer questions to occupy spaces on the board. Students use strategy to determine how they want to occupy those spaces:
- If a player has three tokens in one space, each of those tokens are safe.
- The first time a player places a third token in a space, that player may remove an opponent’s token from the board.
- If a player has one token in each space, then that player may remove an opponent’s token from the board.
Essentially, there are two strategies for occupying the board: one token in every space (doesn’t make sense because it requires 5 tokens), or three tokens in every space (only requires 3 tokens to get the advantage).This is a major flaw. To revise the game, I need to make another winning strategy (another way to win instead of occupying the board), and I need to incorporate more chance.
Only two students came, and one clearly knew the novel better than the other. This meant that one student was able to occupy more spaces, take her opponent’s tokens off the board, and get a really large lead. It was painful to watch. More chance built into the design would have helped the student who fell behind because she would have felt more motivated.
Writing Research Essays
To tackle what students miss when writing research essays, a colleague and I collaborated on two synchronous sessions. She conducted the first half on her regularly scheduled synchronous session day, and I followed-up with the second half on my regularly scheduled day.
To prepare for our sessions, we reviewed old essays and identified where exactly students struggle.
- Writing a strong thesis statement that is specific, arguable, and clear.
- Making arguments about the novel, not summarizing the book.
- Incorporating quotations from the text to advance the argument.
- Incorporating research.
Additionally, we thought students struggle because they don’t see enough research papers beforehand. We’re asking them to write literary criticism without actually showing them what that is.
So we fixed it.
The sessions incorporated many student examples and highlighted what works in a paragraph and what doesn’t work. Students asked questions and practiced the skills.
The first session was mostly lecture with many, many examples.
I was unable to attend, but I watched the recording after, and it was so neat to see how my students worked with her and how she conducted the session. Watching other teachers’ synchronous sessions is like conducting informal observations in a regular classroom. So invaluable.
I conducted the second session, which incorporated more chances for students to practice. First, students used a shared PowerPoint with eight different paragraphs and labeled them “argument” or “summary.”
Here, each footprint is a hyperlink to the specific example. I color-coded the footprints to make it easier for me to verify which were arguments and which were summaries.
Then, after showing students how to use quotations, I had designed a shared Word document with quotations for students to practice describing the quotation and then explaining what the quotation suggests or proves. Unfortunately, the Word doc did not share correctly, so students had less practice with this.
We ended the session with students organizing a paragraph so that it made sense.
Again, I used the same color scheme so I could easily check the sequence of sentences.
We also collaborated for the final review session. I had suggested using a board game review, but after seeing the total attendance from the combined sessions, I feared that there might be too many students to play one game.
The solution: board games in breakout rooms.
Breakout rooms allow students to use the tools in Adobe Connect to collaborate on a project or to discuss a topic. They’re the digital equivalent of putting students’ desks into groups. Then, instead of all of the students playing the same game, we polled students about what they thought they needed to study the most.
Three games, three different topics, and the other teacher and myself could navigate between the rooms to answer questions or help with tech.
The review was a huge success!
Yet, there were some issues. First, students need to be trained on how to use the tools. Second, if students don’t have microphones, the communication is slower. Third, since students are playing the games themselves, the onus is on them to figure out who goes first, how, when, who moves the cards, etc. I provided some guidance, but I found when I entered rooms I had to remind students that it was up to them to communicate and discuss with each other what will happen and how. Although such lessons in negotiation and sharing aren’t tested on the final, they were probably more valuable.
Plans for the New Year
As a side project, I’ve been designing training for Adobe Connect that covers both the technical skills teachers need to know and the instructional strategies most effective in synchronous sessions. The training suggests five different layouts: Welcome, Mini-lesson, Discussion, Demonstration, Review. I want to start using this framework with my own sessions. I do for the most part, but not with a set structure. The design encourages more variation in instruction and allows for more interaction among students. If there are three other layouts to review in a session, it will be less likely for teachers to stay lecturing.
Also, I hope to continue collaborating with the other 8th grade Language Arts teacher. The whole experience has been so beneficial. And more on that next.