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What’s in a Name?

No, we are not talking Shakespeare. We are instead tackling the distasteful tendency to name-call, which is a behavior that nearly all parents and educators have to deal with at some point. In confronting this obnoxious behavior, some parents might believe that they are making a mountain out of a molehill. Some common instincts or remarks are: What’s the big deal, anyway? Everyone gets called names at times. It’s just a little harmless teasing. Follow the “sticks and stones” mindset and you’ll be fine. While these reactions to name-calling do not intend to do harm, the impact may be a different story. 

 

Intent vs. Impact

For middle and high school age groups, a teen’s level of social-emotional intelligence has matured enough to have a serious discussion about intent versus impact. This distinction helps adolescents realize that their words have power, whether they are wielding them maliciously or not. Parents and educators can help clarify this with open and honest conversations. For instance, today, we unfortunately see and hear the term “gay” being thrown around as an insult or put-down. While this is nothing new, and may be intended as a harmless joke between friends, the impact could be devastating. 

 

If you hear your teen throw terms or slurs around in jest, without snapping or placing blame, ask your child the following questions:

  • What do you mean when you call someone gay?
  • Is it a dig at or comment about their sexuality? Or are you actually outting your friend?
  • If neither of those was the intent, what statement are you inadvertently making when you use “gay” as an insult?
  • Do you think being gay warrants random insults?
  • What if your friend actually is struggling with his/her sexuality? What message are you sending him/her when you use it as a slur? 
  • Think about the LGBTQ+ community; how are your insults or jokes inadvertently hurting or putting down that entire community? Were you aware of this when you decided to name-call?

 

A predictable response from many teens is the obligatory eye-roll or a retort such as, “I was just kidding, it’s just a joke, relax.” To which a simple response might be, “A joke is meant to be funny; there is nothing funny about a slur that insults an entire group of people.” Again, the purpose of this type of dialogue is to demonstrate how “just a joke” can end up having a much greater impact, unintentional or not. Use this talk as a springboard to discuss other related issues, such as current news stories, social media posts, text chains, and any other forms of communication. In this day and age, and with everything going on in the world, children need to know that what they say (or type) can and likely will come back to haunt them in the future. Politicians, celebrities, and other adults behaving badly should not give the green light to teens to engage in nasty, bullying behavior.

 

Finally, an additional point to make when addressing this issue with adolescents is to talk openly about how their use of slurs or offensive generalizations makes them look to the people around them. When name-calling or jokingly humiliating a friend in public, people around you may not know that you are kidding. If nothing else, this is simply a bad look and may cause others to look down upon them for their crass words and behavior.

Visualization for Comprehension

Visual learners will certainly understand thisbut truthfully, anyone, regardless of learning styles, can benefit from utilizing visualization strategies for learning and comprehending. Whether working with young readers or helping to break down and make sense of math problems, conjuring up and discussing the images that correspond to certain topics or concepts can help learners conceptualize what would otherwise be too abstract to comprehend. Below are various strategies that parents and educators can use to help students cash in on their mind’s eye for learning.

  • While reading aloud, ask children to pause at the end of a paragraph, page, or section to participate in an oral recollection of what they have just read. Ask prompting questions, such as:
    • After reading about these characters, how are you picturing them in your head?
    • What do they look like? Sound like? How are you visualizing their actions?
    • Where are they? What does the setting or their surroundings look like? Have you been to a place like that? 
    • Based on what they are doing, what do you think the weather might be like? Can you tell what time of year this is taking place?
    • What descriptive words help you to specifically visualize the story’s plot?   
  • To motivate collaborative discussions and increase perspective-taking, perform the visualization in small groups. Then ask students how the images in their heads might be similar or different from their peers’ images. 
  • Ask students to sketch, draw, or paint a scene from the book/text that they are reading. Stress the fact that this practice is not about artistic skill; it is more about conveying an understanding of the text through images or pictures. For students who are reluctant to draw, ask them to create a diagram using simple symbols or stick figures to represent the actions that they visualized. 
  • Have students swap drawings and discuss the different scenes with questions like:
    • What part of the text do you think your partner drew?
    • Which characters are present? Where are they in the image?
    • Did anyone seem to draw the same scene or section?
    • How are these two scenes depicted similarly or differently?
  • Similarly, ask students to draw or sketch predictions for what they think will happen next in the story. This makes for rich collaborative discussions, and it also provides parents and teachers with an opportunity to check in on comprehension. If a student’s prediction is off the walls, then it’s probably time to reread.
  • When reading math word problems, ask students to pause for a second before beginning their calculations. Prompt them to simply sketch the terms of the word problem using hash marks, symbols, or icons to represent the numbers they will be working with. Encourage students to talk through the problem while sketching; this way teachers can catch and clarify any missteps before students begin the actual math calculations. Visually speaking, a quick sketch helps students to conceptualize the otherwise abstract calculations and helps them to comprehend how the numbers and functions are represented.
  • Parents and teachers can also use manipulatives or tokens to represent math problems. Just like a sketch or drawing, the physical manipulatives help students see the variables while they are physically calculating terms.

Connecting with Students Virtually

One of the biggest downsides of online learning, in my personal opinion, is the loss of community and the severely diminished level of engagement that comes from no longer having a physical classroom. Regardless of our content area or our students’ age group, there is something about being in the same physical learning space that conjures up a special type of magic. Personalities emerge, connections are made, and peer interactions are lively when in the comfort of the classroom. Try as we might, much of the magic is lost in the virtual realm. For many teachers, our students are known only to us as faceless black boxes on Zoommany of whom we’ve never actually met in person. Students may be connected in the literal sense, but they are often understandably disconnected when it comes to engagement, interest, and intrinsic motivation. With such little to go on, many teachers find themselves scraping the bottom of the barrel for tips and tricks as to how to truly reach students over Zoom. In the same way that we engage students and build a rapport in the classroom, teachers should start small and recognize that a little bit goes a long way in terms of building connections with students.

 

Celebrate milestones

Although we are not physically in the same room, or even the same building for learning, teachers can take simple steps to make students feel welcomed, acknowledged, and appreciated during online class sessions. 

  • One simple detail that I make sure to use every single day is to acknowledge students’ birthdays on the opening slide at the start of each week. Since my opening Google slide format stays the same throughout the yearit’s just the agenda and objectives that changeI can easily update the birthday announcement in less than a minute when prepping for the week ahead. By checking Synergy/gradebook, I am able to quickly see which students are celebrating a birthday that week, add their name to the “Welcome” slide, and wish them a happy birthday at the start of class as they enter the Zoom session. This is a small but simple way to acknowledge a student’s special day. It may also be the first or only mention of their birthday, so I like to make a big deal out of it, even if we’re not in the classroom together.
  • If I’m lacking a good warm-up question for the day, or if students are coming back from a long weekend or holiday break, I use the activator/warm-up opportunity to check in on what students have been up to. I keep the options for response casual and conversational to prompt full participation. Some students will prefer to speak out loud to the whole group about their weekend plans; others prefer to respond privately using the chat function. As I’m taking attendance, I’ll make quick notes about soccer games, volleyball tournaments, siblings visiting from college, etc., so that I’m able to follow up with students about things other than their English assignments. Again, a little bit of personalized attention helps students to feel more comfortable in the virtual space. These small conversations add up over time, helping to build a positive rapport and encourage participation and open dialogue.
  • When I’m providing feedback on written assignments, I use those comments as an additional opportunity to connect with students, not only about their writing skills, but about the content of their writing as well. For instance, I may compliment a student who has shown growth in her sentence structure or vocabulary since her last essay. I may also ask follow-up questions in the comments. For instance, since many of my seniors are writing about their plans for next year, I use my essay feedback as an opportunity to prompt them for more detail. I’ll make a point to ask the following questions, especially when students submit personal narratives:
    • What was the number one factor for choosing that school?
    • Do you know anyone else attending the same college?
    • What was your first impression of the campus?
    • What are you most nervous about after graduation?
    • What is one thing you hope to do before leaving for school?
    • How have your goals/career aspirations changed over time?

Virtual Writing Instruction: Part II

In addition to providing cross-curricular writing opportunities, arranging activities that encourage peer feedback, and building in time for formative writing assessment, educators can also capitalize on one highly underrated teaching strategy: student choice. When at all possible, I try to provide my students with latitude for their written responses and essays. Of course, with a curriculum to follow, grade books to align, and cohorts that prefer to plan in “lock-step,” this is much easier said than done. Therefore, I make a concerted effort to plan for student choice when designing the writing tasks, as well as the instructional lessons leading up to those tasks.  

 

Below are several methods for implementing student choice while providing writing instruction:

  • Set up a NoRedInk classroom for students to join, explore, and practice various aspects of sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc. The platform is set up for self-directed, student-driven, asynchronous work. Therefore, the activity options in NoRedInk can provide students with interventions, scaffolds, and supports, as well as enrichment and rigor for those working ahead of the group. 
  • NoRedInk allows students to choose from grammatical, sentence-level practices, standardized English prompts, and guided essay support. They can also participate in peer or self-review, depending on their level of comfort with collaborative feedback.
  • One of my favorite warm-up activities is to provide students with several gifs on a Google slide. I try to choose gifs that relate to students and their interests, such as The Weeknd’s Superbowl Halftime performance or the latest State Farm commercial. They get to choose the gif they’d like to caption. Then they must incorporate a sentence structure or grammatical concept that we’ve recently discussed in class somewhere in their caption. Not only do students get to pick the gif they want to caption, but they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of subordinating conjunctions, for example. Like an exit or entry ticket, teachers can quickly sift through the gif response to make sure that clauses are punctuated correctly and that students are understanding the purpose of the dependent clause in relation to the independent clause.
  • For writing instruction involving essay revision, teacher feedback, or peer edits, ask students to consider which section or paragraph of their essay they’d like to really rework or revise. Teachers can then use strategic grouping to organize students into groups with peers who are looking to revise the same portion of their essays. This streamlines teacher feedback, allows students to view one another’s work, and opens up the learning space for discourse around different writing techniques and components. 
  • I might organize small groups as follows:
    • Group 1 should be students who would like support/guidance with the thesis statement.
    • Group 2 should include students who need help finding appropriate quotes from the text or texts.
    • Group 3 should consist of students who need support with a concluding paragraph and/or transitions between paragraphs.
    • Group 4 should be for students who need help with elaborating on their analysis or further developing their own explanations. 

 

Student choice with writing samples/models:

  • Providing teacher models at the beginning of a new writing task is another beneficial strategy for incorporating student choice. Depending on the writing task, teachers should find (or create) a few various examples of the final essay or product for students to read and review. 
  • These samples can also include student essays from previous years. Provide students with options and require them to read, review, and assess at least one of the sample essays. This activity serves several purposesit allows students to see how others have approached the essay prompt, either successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on the samples you collect. It also shows teachers if students truly understand the criteria for success after viewing a teacher model or student sample.
  • If students review a mediocre or poor essay model as “great” or “topnotch work,” then teachers immediately see that they have missed the mark on fully explaining the task and the learning goals attached. Conversely, if students are unable to articulate why the model essay was unsuccessful or sound, then they truly do not know how to approach the task successfully either.

Teacher Tips: Keeping Students Engaged in Virtual Math Class

As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, nothing used to scare me more than the possibility of having to cover an absent colleague’s math class. Like a fish out of water, my literacy-geared mind simply cannot adapt to the math world. Now that we educators have moved into the virtual realm of instruction, at least for the time being, I am even more in awe of how my math teacher counterparts are able to reach their students when it comes to such complex skills. It goes without saying that, for students like myself who find math to be difficult to begin with, they must be finding online math instruction to be even more difficult. Another critical piece of this perplexing puzzle is this: how on earth are teachers now adapting to make online math instruction engaging?  

 

Real World Connections

Just as we would in the physical classroom, in order to boost engagement for a lesson or concept, teachers should try their best to connect the activity or information to students’ real-world problems. Enough with the “train leaving the station at a certain time” word problems and examples. Students will inevitably zone out when the material is not relevant or familiar. Instead, use what you know about your students to incorporate their interests into your math lesson, then connect the content to a problem that they might actually need to solve at some point. Making the concepts less arbitrary by showing students how to use these math skills in the real world will take engagement to a new level.

  • To teach measurements, perimeter, area, etc., have students make a plan for rearranging their room by actually measuring out their bedrooms and bedroom furniture. 
    • Visual learners can sketch a “floor plan” for where they could realistically move their bed, dresser, desk, etc.
    • Kinesthetic learners may want to build a diorama or 3D representation of their bedroom arrangement proposal using everyday materials around the house like cardboard, straws, tape, sticky notes, etc.
  • Teach percentages and healthy eating by demonstrating how much sugar is in some of your students’ favorite candies and treats. Poll students in advance and do a little research about how many grams of sugar are in some of their favorite candy bars. 
    • Then challenge students to represent those grams in tablespoons so that they can visually see how much sugar they are ingesting. 
    • Extend the activity by discussing how much of their daily recommended sugar intake is “eaten up” by choosing that candy bar. Ask students to figure out how much of a healthier treat, like grapes, they could eat in place of the candy barthey’ll be amazed at the comparison.
  • Teach concepts involving time by having students actually time themselves doing everyday tasks, like walking to the park, making their bed, brushing their teeth, etc. 
    • Then incorporate multiplication skills to see how many minutes students spend brushing their teeth in a year, for example. 
    • You can surprise them even more by asking them to track screen time for a week and then finding out the average time they might be spending in front of their phones per year.

 

Celebrate (and Learn from) the Errors

Students don’t often spend time reviewing math errors to gain a substantial understanding. Instead, they’re correcting mistakes for additional credit, or overlooking the missteps altogether. Teachers can boost engagement by capitalizing on students’ errors in non-judgmental ways.

  • Teachers may want to try a practice called “the best mistake” in which they use anonymous student samples to analyze where a math problem went wrong. 
    • This activity encourages students to take on another’s perspective, reread and review material, and look critically at different mathematical functions and properties.
    • This activity also helps to remove the stress around math quizzes and word problems by making light of errors and demonstrating how they happen to everyonewe all make mistakes sometimes. The key is to use those mistakes and improve in the future.
  • Teachers can also increase engagement by letting students be the experts and intentionally making an error in a math problem.
    • Tell students in advance that a step or number is incorrect. Ask students to discuss and collaborate in groups in order to spot the teacher’s error.
    • Remember, kids always love being able to correct the teacher—even if the error is intentional.

Transparency and Parent Communication

Schools being closed is certainly not ideal. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to look at the positive. It’s time to look for the silver linings in the Covid cloud we’ve been enduring for nearly a year now. One of those silver linings might actually involve the virtual learning model into which educators, students, and families have been unwillingly thrust. You see, online learning essentially lends itself to consistency, open communication, and transparency between parents and teachers. If utilized correctly, parents can use virtual learning platforms as a front row seat to everything that their child is reading, learning, and creating.

Invite Parents into the Virtual World
Whether teachers are using Canvas, Google Classroom, or any of the other instructional platforms available right now, parents should be encouraged to join as participants or viewers. Many schools made this information available at the start of the school year; however, not all parents were aware of the advantages that this form of “virtual classroom participation” would give them and their children. Educators should consider some of the following measures:

  • Send out a mass email to parents and guardians about joining the virtual classroom if anyone has yet to do so.
  • Be sure to make class codes, course numbers, and Zoom login information visible on your course home page; you can also include this information in the mass email to parents.
  • Post “parent-friendly” announcements to your course homepage to ensure that parents see these important notifications directly at the top when they login to check grades, review assignments, etc.
  • For students with chronic absenteeism, reach out to parents via email and/or phone about their child’s absences in case they are unaware of the missed classes.
  • Use the Canvas “grades” page to send mass emails to specific students and their “observers,” i.e. parents, when they have missed an important assignment deadline. This function allows teachers to email anyone who hasn’t submitted the assignment all at once without showing other recipients.
  • When interims or the end of the marking period is approaching, post a message to all students and “observers” about final steps and tasks for successfully rounding out the marking period.
  • Set up a parent page in Canvas for each course where parents can find important course information, class or weekly calendars, teacher contact info, Zoom logins, office hours, and FAQs.
  • Use Screencastify to create how-to tutorials for parents. These videos could include information on how to check grades, how to see if assignments have been submitted, how to view teacher feedback on written tasks, how to use Kami, etc.
  • Push out a parent survey using Google forms to obtain vital information about how e-learning is going at home. Ask questions like, How much hands-on homework support do you provide to your child on the average night? Does your child have access to his/her own computer for learning? Is there an older sibling or parent in the home during the average instructional day to provide tech support? Are there technology issues at home? Where does your child do most of his/her classwork? How many children are in the home participating in virtual learning at the same time? On average, how much sleep is your child getting on the typical school night? How much time is spent on homework over the weekend? What frustrations are you seeing with regard to virtual learning/instruction? Do you have easy access to your child’s grades, course materials, school resources, etc.? What steps could I take to provide more transparency/clarity to parents about our class? If your child needs more instructional support, do you know where/how to obtain those resources?
  • Finally, teachers should create engaging assignments that encourage discourse within the family. These family-centered prompts require students to bring their parents into the assignment for support and guidance, which allows parents to see firsthand what you’re teaching. For instance, ask students to interview a member of their household for a formative assessment on sentence structure. Have students write a personal essay about how they got their name, including direct quotes from their parents or guardians. Have students create a “family album” on Google slides including photos and fun facts about siblings, pets, parents, grandparents, etc.

Formative Assessments for Virtual Learning

For educators, formative assessments are crucial data points that we utilize on a daily basis, or at least, we used to utilize them in the classroom before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that most of us are doing our instructing and learning in the virtual world in front of screens, formative assessments have become somewhat more difficult, but that much more important at the same time. Since we are no longer seeing our students in person, and many of us are only seeing classes a few times a week, it is even more crucial to consistently check-in on student progress and mastery. Formative assessments, even of the virtual type, help to ensure that students who are struggling or misunderstanding a concept are provided with interventions, supports, scaffolds, clarification, and opportunities for reteaching. Below you’ll find various methods for implementing formative assessments in the virtual realm. Nothing can replace the insight that educators get from in-person observations in the classroom; however, these activities help to make sure we’re getting as much information about how and what our students are learning from our online classes.

 

Journaling

Journaling as a daily warm-up is often considered as an “English-only” writing activity for obvious reasons. However, students’ journal responses can be valuable pieces of diagnostic information for any content area, so long as the prompts or questions are designed to elicit certain feedback or responses. For example, math and science classes can use journaling as a method for checking for understanding after a new concept, property, or formula is introduced in class. Teachers may choose to ask students to write about a scenario involving a time when the physical property of a substance might change. Perhaps a math teacher may ask students to write about a real-life scenario in which their knowledge of exponents might come in handy. The point is to make sure that the journal prompt is specific enough that it provides the teacher with information about who understands the content from the last class and who needs more instruction.

 

Entry/Exit Tickets

Teachers can use a Google form, a quick response assignment in Canvas, or even the chat function on Zoom to elicit formative responses about what students remember about the day’s lesson. At the end of a Zoom session, ask students to think about their class discussion, materials, slides, practices, etc. and have each student provide one sentence about the most significant point or takeaway from today’s class. If students are consistently confused or missing the mark, it should be a sign that some reteaching or scaffolds are necessary before the whole class progresses. If only a few students struggle to pinpoint the main takeaway, then perhaps a small group or breakout room would allow for more direct instruction while the others continue on with the material. Frame the exit tickets not as “got ya” moment tied to points or grades, but more as a “how well did I teach you today?” type of activity.

 

Summaries

To assess students’ knowledge of a text, whether the reading be related to math, science, art, music, history/government, or an actual novel for English class, consider having students summarize the text as a means of formatively assessing their understanding of the content. For younger students, it may be helpful to introduce the 5W’s (who, what, when, where, why) to help them to begin their summaries. The key in assessing a one-sentence student summary is to look for the main points or “big ideas” that you’d hoped students would grasp from the reading. If many students are falling short of finding the big ideas, it’s probably a good idea to go back and complete a whole group close reading of certain paragraphs, lines, or vocab terms.

 

Connections

If students are able to make connections between new content and prior knowledge, chances are good that they’ve at least begun to understand the new material. Therefore, another great method for formatively assessing students in the virtual classroom is to ask them to relate the new topic, idea, content, or material to something that they’ve seen, heard about, or learned before. For example, if students are learning about colonialism, ask them to make a list of things that they think are related to or that remind them of colonialism. These lists can take the form of a word web, a collaborative Google slide, or a padlet response. The point is for students to articulate their understanding of colonialism as it applies to things that they’ve already learned about.

Essential Building Blocks for Reading Comprehension, Part I

Many of us don’t actually remember learning how to read. We may remember sitting on our kindergarten carpet squares, picking out new picture books at the school book fair, or feeling the excitement of turning the final page of a book read independently for the first time. Those fond memories are certainly associated with the skills one must acquire in order to first learn to read; however, we cannot necessarily remember the actual process of learning how to comprehend the words on the page. Thinking about it now, reading almost seems like an innate skill, as though reading just happens. If only that were the case…

 

Sadly, reading comprehension can be a labor intensive task for many young learners. Some children can fool us on the surface; they may learn to read fluently, briskly, and accurately, as though they are natural-born readers. However, reading fluency and comprehension do not always go hand in hand. Children may acquire the necessary skills to read clearly and accurately, but, try as they might, these same kids may simultaneously struggle with the ability to digest or comprehend a text. So, if it is not a natural or innate skill, what goes into reading comprehension anyway?

 

Part of the reason why reading comprehension can be a struggle for many learners is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. 

 

Fluency Strategies

  • Review sight words and high frequency words regularly
  • Turn fluency practice into a game by setting timed records, racing against the clock, and matching spoken sight words with word cards
  • Practice pronunciation by modeling and rehearsing
  • Clap period stops and snap comma pauses to improve punctuation recognition
  • Repeat readings to help with word recognition
  • Always read aloud to and with your child
  • Model and practice reading with expression
  • Give your different characters a “voice” while reading aloud to your child
  • Preview or expose children to the new or unfamiliar words before giving them the reading passage
  • Utilize poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs to practice fluency

 

Phonics Strategies

  • Use photos/images to match objects with corresponding beginning sounds
  • Practice sorting words into “like” sound piles using word cards
  • Create a word wall in your child’s bedroom or playroom
  • Play “blend bingo” using bingo cards and corresponding images of words that include each consonant blend
  • Use Scrabble tiles to “build” sounds 
  • Use rhyming strategies to group/categorize words
  • Play “which one of these is not like the others?” using word cards
  • Use tapping, clapping, or any other kinesthetic method for sounding out words

 

Background Knowledge Strategies

  • Expose your child to a variety of text types and different genres to create a repertoire of background information
  • Incorporate alternate media, such as movies, art, news, television, etc.
  • Teach new words in categories to help solidify new terms with prior knowledge
  • Practice word mapping to build connections
  • Compare and contrast words and concepts while reading
  • Preview new texts or frontload unfamiliar information using references or just casually discussing the topic
  • Use KWL charts to track knowledge of new concepts/topics
  • Utilize picture books, regardless of age, to pair images with new words
  • Take virtual field trips

Making Connections and Building Engagement

Whether students are going to school 100% virtually or participating in a hybrid model, one thing is for certain—the need for building community, making personal connections, and boosting engagement is more important than ever before. Education certainly looks different right now, and many teachers would argue that distance learning is just not cutting it academically or socially for our students. Regardless of how and when schools will resume in-person learning, teachers have to get creative in the meantime to ensure that students’ needs are met on a holistic level. We cannot solely focus on providing virtual instruction during these trying times.

Journaling
It is difficult to connect to students through a camera lens. It’s even more difficult to build relationships with learners you’ve perhaps never met in person or if you haven’t even heard their voices. It can be just as uncomfortable, if not moreso, for students to engage with a new, unfamiliar adult over the computer during live instruction. To ease the unfamiliarity, some teachers are turning to a tried and true writer’s workshop activity—journal time. Journaling as a warm-up activity lends itself especially well to an English course, but other content areas can capitalize on journal writing as well.

Teachers should consider starting with open-ended prompts that allow students to express themselves on a personal level. To encourage students to write freely, explain to them that their journal responses will not be evaluated or read by peers. They should understand that journaling is purely intended to share experiences and spur conversation. This also prompts students to speak candidly so that you can begin to get to know them on a more personal level—this is essential since we are no longer teaching in person. Keep the prompts light and provide options to start the routine. I always like to ask my high schoolers to tell me what their favorite and/or least favorite thing about being a teenager is. These responses give really good insight into students’ lives and what they may be dealing with outside of school. I also like to keep these samples and refer back to them later in the school year to show students how much growth they’ve shown in their personal writing.

Identity Collage
Creating an identity collage is another useful and engaging way to get students to share a little more about themselves in a visual art form. Ask students to create a Google slide as a self-portrait. They can use an actual photo of themselves or get artistic and sketch or draw themselves. Once they’ve added the photo, which shows the world how they appear on the outside, ask students to cover half of their face on the slide with images, words/phrases, or other symbols that represent their underlying or deeper identity. Encourage them to think about what their peers might not know about them just by looking at them. Once students have submitted their slides, teachers can combine all of the dual external/internal self-portraits into a class “yearbook” of sorts. This way, even though we aren’t physically learning in the same space, students can get to know a little bit more about their peers on a more personal level.

“All emotions” Playlist
Music tends to be a topic or area of discussion that spurs great participation, no matter your student’s age or grade level. Music is also something that can unify groups of people on an emotional level, since people often view music as therapeutic. If studying language, history, psychology, or perhaps music, kids will greatly appreciate this engaging project. Ask students to compile a list of go-to songs that they would play as clear representations of a mood or emotion. For instance, what is your go-to song to listen to when you’re frustrated, or melancholy, or excited, or feeling silly? Students will then make a playlist of their 3-5 songs and briefly explain how the song helps to alleviate their frustration or sadness. They’ll need to answer questions like, What about this one song excites you or makes you laugh? What about this song helps you to release anger/frustration? What line or lyric from this song resonates with you when you’re feeling sad?

Get Spontaneous on Zoom
Zooming all day can become draining, to say the least. Shake things up for kids by utilizing short breaks that serve a specific purpose and keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to the discussion. For example, if giving students a quick 5-minute break during your Zoom class, challenge them to come back to the session holding something orange. Ask them to come back with a hat on. Prompt them to grab their pet or favorite stuffed animal when rejoining the session. Tell them to grab their favorite snack or something that they absolutely can’t live without. Take it a step further and ask students to bring a family heirloom or or family photo to the next Zoom class so students can pair-share in breakout rooms as a family-based show and tell.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers, Part II

In part one, we shared the many ways in which breakout rooms during a Zoom class session can be helpful. Logistically speaking, small groups allow for more intimate collaboration among students and provide a more manageable platform for discussion. Now we want to explore additional ideas that show how to use breakout rooms for various instructional benefits. Below are creative ways for educators to utilize breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

Accountability techniques: Feedback that I have already been receiving from several students involves the lack of full participation, even during small group activities in breakout rooms. As is typical in the brick and mortar classroom as well, some students feel as though they are carrying the entire team and shouldering the workload themselves. Here’s how to account for this issue in breakout rooms:

 

  • Create a Google document with directions, prompts, discussion questions, and anything else you would like students to collaborate on in groups.
  • Specify different text boxes or spaces on the document where different groups should respond. (Breakout rooms are numbered, so you can keep it simple by designating response spaces for group 1, group 2, group 3, etc.)
  • Share the link to the Google document in the Zoom chat prior to arranging breakout groups. **Make sure that participants with the link have editing access; this is manageable in your shared settings**
  • Ask students to open the document to ensure that everyone has access before opening breakout rooms.
  • Once in breakout rooms, students will need to discuss cooperatively, but respond individually on the Google doc. This allows teachers to track participants and identify if anyone has not contributed to their group’s notes on the Google document.

 

Listening practices: It is easy for us to zoom out (pun intended, sorry!) while participating in hours of Zoom classes every day. To spur engagement and meaningful conversations, teachers can use breakout rooms to set up 1:1 student interviews or chat sessions:

 

  • Review expectations and procedures for breakout room groups.
  • Introduce “accountable talk” stems of sentence starters for younger learners so that their conversations stay on track.
  • Assign interview questions on a shared Google document (as explained above) and ask students to “report back” with new information about his or her peer.
  • Remind students that they may paraphrase their partner’s information, so long as they are still accurately relaying what their partner said. This allows time for students to truly listen to one another.
  • This activity can be used for ice breakers or getting to know you activities, perspective taking, peer reviews, etc.

 

Reviewing class material: Another way to utilize breakout rooms is for important class review sessions or to debrief a whole group discussion or lesson:

 

  • Share a class Google document, as mentioned above, that includes key topics or important takeaways from the day or week’s lesson.
  • In breakout rooms, students should use the time to ask questions of the group about anything that they are confused about. This could include vocabulary/terms, questions about an assigned text, clarification on a certain topic, etc. The point is to use this time as an open forum to seek clarity and ask questions.
  • While discussing, prompt students to capture the questions and any possible answers/responses on the shared Google document.
  • The document will act as a free-flowing study guide, which students can access after class.
  • This document also allows teachers to address unclear concepts, lingering questions, and any material that they’d like to reteach before moving forward.