A few months ago I was in Cupertino Unified School District observing in an eighth grade classroom. The students speaking and listening skills were impressive, and their teacher, Christine Kowalishen, credits regular classroom discussion enhanced with technology to increase engagement and accountability, for their proficiency. Here’s how it went.
Eight students sat at a central table discussing an interpretive question about John Updike’s story, A & P. They made clear claims, used academic language, consistently referred to the text, questioned one another respectfully, and stuck with an idea to build it before moving on.
The remainder of the class members formed a second circle around the perimeter of the room. They each had a laptop or tablet and were taking notes on the discussion, agreeing and disagreeing, furthering, and questioning in the online forum Backchannel Chat. Kowalishen mentioned that when students first began this practice she gave them proscribed sentence starters but students had quickly moved past the need for those.
The Backchannel Chat not only kept the entire class involved in the discussion, but it primed those outer-circle students for their own turn in the inner circle. There were three rotations within thirty minutes and every student in the class was involved in the discussion the entire time, either verbally or electronically. At the end Kowalishen had a running record of the online discussion and was able to debrief quickly with the class about what ideas had surfaced and how the discussion had built. (She later emphasized that the practice of debriefing discussions had been a huge factor in improving students’ discussion skills.)
Students were then asked to quickly record how the discussion had changed or built their thinking. Around 75% of students recorded something like, “Well, at the beginning of the class I was really thinking _____, but when so-and-so said such-and-such, it really made me think/wonder/doubt/change, because ________.” With the purpose of discussion being to build thinking, observers agreed that this was a highly successful outcome.
Robert Jezyk, another Cupertino teacher, regularly uses Google Docs to allow students to post their claims onto the Smart Board in advance of the whole class discussion. During discussion students can participate both verbally and electronically through the google document. Moodle and Blackboard both offer similar but expanded applications for classroom collaboration and tracking. They are free to teachers and their websites offer easy tutorials.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “But how do I even get my students to have a discussion in the first place?” let me recommend Marc Nachowitz and Nancy Brumer’s article, Teaching the Talk, Not the Text. In it they detail a four-month intervention in a sixth grade classroom, designed to teach students how to engage in progressive discourse around a text. The instruction was enhanced through the use of Knowledge Forum.
“Like other online discussion boards such as Moodle or Blackboard, Knowledge Forum allows students to post, read, and respond to others’ comments. However, unlike those digital environments, Knowledge Forum requires students to select from a menu of scaffolds for each discussion note posted to facilitate progressive discourse. For example, scaffolds initiate the participant’s note-composing by providing guidance with categories such as “my theory,” “I need to understand,” “new information,” “a better theory,” and “putting our knowledge together.” Knowledge Forum allows students the freedom to generate and share literary interpretations; however, all subsequent posts and student comments must “rise-above” the initial post by selecting scaffolds requiring them to extend, justify, or clarify emerging ideas.”
Share your questions and success stories. How have you employed technology to enhance discussion and overall student engagement?
Enhancing Discussion Through Technology: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 4