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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.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers Pt. I

This new normal that we are all trying our best to become acquainted with has us dodging curveballs left and right. Teachers are especially frazzled right now. Think about it—seasoned educators have been tasked with completely modifying every known skill set on a dime, with little to no training, all while under the community’s microscope. For a field that tends to attract Type A personalities, all of these hurdles have undoubtedly been overwhelming for professionals who pride themselves on being proactive and prepared.

 

While the move to full-time virtual learning involves a plethora of suggested technology for educators, the sheer amount of platforms and resources can be daunting. One saving grace I’ve found while “Zooming” through the first two weeks of the 2020-2021 school year is the breakout room function during Zoom classes. What is essentially an automatic “small groupinator” at the click of the mouse actually proves to be a life saver for many different reasons. Read on for strategies and methods for utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

  • Attendance Check: Taking attendance, a seemingly routine daily task, is not so simple anymore. Between the constant Zoom doorbell, the screen sharing, and switching back and forth between countless open tabs, attendance is often the last task a teacher is focused on during class. However, the use of breakout rooms during Zoom meetings makes attendance much more manageable. While groups are meeting, discussing, collaborating, etc., teachers are able to scroll through each group’s participants and check off for attendance on a physical roster. This has been such a time saver, especially since Zoom participants are alphabetized by first name, while our grade books are alphabetized by last name.
  • Student Discourse: Breakout rooms are also beneficial for spurring student discourse. My first week of virtual instruction was beyond painful due to the lack of participation. Virtual learning is awkward for many reasons—it’s new and unfamiliar, students are videotaped, technology glitches occur regularly, it involves a look inside everyone’s personal living spaces…the list goes on and on. However, once I put my students into breakout rooms for discussions, the small group aspect allowed students to share willingly without the pressure of 30+ people staring.
  • Time to Think: The small group aspect also allows students to have some wait time before speaking; they are able to process and gather thoughts without feeling rushed or pressured.
  • Collaboration: Virtual small groups also encourage collaborative efforts. Before entering breakout rooms, I review participant expectations and guidelines so that everyone is on the same page. Group members are responsible for contributing, listening, summarizing, and sharing. Group members are also presented with accountable talk sentence stems to help spur productive discussions.
  • Participation: Sometimes, students are tasked with summarizing their group’s discussion individually as an assignment for participation. This way, teachers can ensure that even the more quiet or reluctant students were able to get something out of their classmates’ discussion groups.
  • Random Grouping: The breakout room feature allows teachers to group randomly or strategically. This means that students have opportunities to work with different peers each time. It also means that teachers can thoughtfully group students based on academic or personal needs.
  • Special Needs: With a special educator or para educator on the Zoom call, teachers can purposefully pair students who might require extra guidance or support with an additional adult in the breakout group.

Following Directions

Since distance learning and online instruction has rapidly become the new normal for students all over the map, navigating this new forum has presented both teachers and students with learning curves. Through just the first few weeks of digital/virtual instruction, I personally have recognized an increased need for concise, explicit, and thorough directions on assignments. What I initially thought were clear instructions have often been met with various questions.

 

It sounds obvious—of course students need to be provided with specific directions on any given task. However, we teachers have been relying on face-to-face explanations, visual models and examples, and chunked verbal guidance without ever realizing what it would be like to take all of those supports away. Well, now we know. Even with video platforms like Zoom, Screencastify, etc., the ability to fully instruct, explain, and clarify is somewhat muddled. As beneficial as these tools can be for distance learning, these platforms simply do not provide the same level of guidance that face-to-face classroom instruction provides.

 

Now that teachers have begun to anticipate the various (numerous!) questions that students pose while distance learning ramps up, we can certainly recognize the importance of modifying our way of providing written directions.

 

  • For tasks that are going to require multiple steps, teachers need to present students with each individual step separately. This also means that each step will likely require its own set of directions. For example, an English teacher chunking a five-paragraph essay for students should provide specific instructions and requirements for each paragraph, separately.
  • This could mean creating a unit checklist; drafting a week-by-week calendar with steps labeled for certain days; or creating a sample of each separate paragraph with each sentence highlighted to demonstrate key components.
  • Introducing an assignment in steps also allows students to ask more specific questions when necessary. Instead of receiving a bunch of emails saying, “I’m confused about the essay,” students can specify exactly which step they need clarification on.
  • This level of micromanaging an assignment might seem excessive, especially for older students. However, providing step-by-step instructions while chunking a multi-step task will be crucial for student success during distance learning. This is especially true for students with different learning needs or executive functioning deficits.
  • It would also be helpful for teachers to include suggested time management tips for assignments as well. A top complaint that parents are voicing is the amount of time their children are spending trying to decipher their assignments.
  • Teachers should consider including the amount of time that each task should take in the instructions. That way, students who may plan on taking an hour to complete a 20-minute assignment can adjust their workload appropriately.
  • Use specific language in the directions that you would like students to use in their assignment. For instance, directions for analyzing a videotaped science lab should include content-specific language that students need to know as part of the unit. For example, teachers should bold or italicize the terms hypothesis or variable so that students key in on important aspects of the task.
  • Add specificity to your standard rubrics. What teachers thought was a clear rubric is likely lacking since we are unable to verbally explain grading as we typically would in class. If the history essay rubric requires “mastery in voice and structure,” teachers should clarify what that should look like.
  • For instance, the rubric might need to include guiding questions for each category. Do you maintain present tense throughout? Do you introduce your body paragraphs with sound claim statements? Do you utilize unit vocabulary throughout?
  • This level of specified directions may seem tedious at first, compared to our normal way of orally explaining tasks in the classroom. However, front loading assignments with ultra-clear directives will allow your students to not only comprehend the task, but also regain a sense of confidence in this new method of teaching and learning.

Making Remote Education Work for Students with Special Education Needs

It is increasingly remarkable to think that just a few weeks ago, students and teachers were still in class, working towards end-of-quarter goals. So much has changed as Covid-19 has spread across the nation, shuttering schools indefinitely and leading students, parents, teachers and administrators to ask: What do we do now?

 

Learning never stops—it just changes course.

Many students were sent home with assignments to complete and deadlines to meet. Others are accessing online materials and connecting remotely with instructors. In some places, students are even taking a short break from the standard curriculum to explore educational videos, podcasts, interactive games and virtual museum tours.

 

The remote education opportunities are seemingly endless—that is, until special learning needs are added to the mix. Then navigating this “new normal” can seem downright impossible.

Although federal law mandates that school systems provide equal access to education for students with learning disabilities, no one seems to know what that means in our current situation. Across the nation, school districts are grappling with how to provide remote education to as many of the seven million impacted students as possible, without defying the law and potentially losing critical funding. Yet, with mere weeks to prepare, how can schools possibly replicate the services of diverse therapists—occupational, learning, behavioral, speech, physical and vision—as well as adaptive specialists and aides? It is not feasible.

 

Learning Essentials is here to help.

With our team of certified, advanced-degreed tutors, Learning Essentials is the premier special education tutoring company in the DC Metro area. We “get” these students and their diverse needs. We have the education and experience to assist students with learning disabilities and differences during this massive transition. Our learning strategies and multi-sensory methods are proven, and our team is equipped to offer fully online support for all learners.

 

As administrators, teachers, and parents struggle to create and implement in-home supports for special needs students, Learning Essentials is ready to step in with solutions. We can suggest modifications to learning content, accommodations for optimal learning environments, and techniques that can guide parents and support students in accessing the curriculum in these unprecedented circumstances.

 

Ready for help? Contact Learning Essentials today for a free consultation. Let us set the best course to keep special needs students on the path to learning.

Providing Realistic Reassurance

Whether you are an educator, a parent, or a family member, you are likely fielding a lot of questions regarding the “what ifs” of the current state of things. The more complicated side of these questions is that we ourselves don’t have many answers to these questions—in fact, we’ve got questions of our own! One thing we can do for children and teens is to talk through their concerns as a family. The conversation may not always result in complete understanding or resolute answers. However, the importance is to ease fears and mediate concerns.

 

Missing milestones 

A major concern for today’s high school students is the fact that this unplanned, mid-school-year hiatus jeopardizes way more than just instruction and learning. Testing centers have been shut down; colleges and universities have sent students home, closed campuses, and moved to online learning for the second semester. For students who have been planning to tour campuses, take entrance exams, and narrow their final college search this spring, the current state of things makes those plans nearly impossible. Furthermore, the typical high school rites of passage that students look forward to throughout their entire education, such as spring break trips, prom, graduation and graduation parties, are more of an impossibility now because of COVID-19. How can parents begin to soften this blow?

  • Put things into perspective for your teens by showing them the realities that other people are living. If kids are preoccupied with the notion that they’re missing out on major high school events, we need to give them a reality check. By reading up on the death tolls, financial struggles, and hunger and homelessness that this pandemic is causing around the world, our teenagers are able to see that, despite these cancelled events, their lives are extremely blessed. Discuss the importance of gratitude and how, while it’s okay to be disappointed about missing these milestones, it should not become all consuming considering how much we have to be thankful for right now. Furthermore, remind teens that sulking about does nothing to change the outcome—happiness is a mindset.
  • Talk about how, even though the events themselves may be up in the air, the meaning behind these special rites of passage can never be lost. For instance, the importance of graduation is what it represents, not the ceremony itself. As a family, focus on the achievements and how, regardless of formal celebrations, the accomplishments still remain.
  • When high school students get upset over these missed opportunities, parents can also provide comfort by stating the obvious—everyone is going through these same losses, too. Your teen needs to remember that she isn’t the only one missing out on prom or not getting her driver’s license right away. While most adolescents find it difficult to see beyond themselves, they can find comfort in the fact that these circumstances are not unique to them—thousands of other high schoolers are experiencing these same feelings of disappointment.
  • When in doubt, highlight the great things that your teen has ahead of him. Yes, this is a largely confusing and disappointing time. However, this is going to pass. We can help ourselves get through these trying times by remaining positive and always looking for the silver lining.

Checking In Virtually

Now that the school year has come to a screeching halt for many students, digital learning and online instruction is becoming the norm. However, in addition to content-specific questions and online discussion threads, educators can also take this time to remotely check in on students’ well-being.

 

It goes without saying that this is a crazy time full of many uncertainties. For children and teens, this global pandemic can be even more troubling, especially since the adults—the ones with all the answers—seem to have no answers at this point. One way that teachers can lend an ear, even if digitally, is to post daily check-ins using a platform like polleverywhere and Google Classroom.

 

With Google Classroom, students are likely already enrolled in their teachers’ courses and may be set up to receive messages from Google when teachers post. Therefore, the process for getting started with daily check-ins is fairly seamless. Teachers can simplify the process initially by creating a Google form that asks students to choose an emoji that represents how they are feeling today. This process takes mere minutes to set up and can provide key insight as to how children are doing at home during quarantine. Educators have many options within Google forms in terms of answer responses. For a simple poll, teachers can ask the following questions:

  • Using the rating scale, rate your level of comfort/understanding of the poem I posted yesterday.
  • Using the drop down options, select the emoji that corresponds to your mood right now.
  • Did you have enough food to eat today, yes or no?
  • Based on our digital packet, which concept are you finding to be the most difficult? Select all that apply from the drop down menu.

 

If teachers want to get more of a detailed response from students, they can select the “short answer” option in Google forms when asking for responses. One idea for teachers to check on students’ emotional well-being is to utilize the short answer function. Ask students to list their pit and peak or rose and thorn of the day. In essence, teachers are aiming to identify what is going well at home and what students may be struggling with more specifically. Google also provides options for teachers to provide an example of their own response. This allows students to see that everyone is in this together—we are all experiencing highs and lows while schools are closed.

 

Furthermore, educators can then use this data to reach out to students or families directly who may be struggling more significantly. Whether due to a lack of resources or the emotional impacts of isolation, teachers can relay these concerns to school administrators and/or community members to provide necessary resources and aid to families based on their needs.

 

Another way to utilize these web-based platforms is to open assignment threads to allow students to post back and forth to one another. Some English teachers are finding that they are still able to practice book talks and literature circle conversations during the school closures using these features.

 

A word of caution, since teenagers will be teenagers, especially when cooped up at home—teachers should set clear guidelines for participation. Make sure students know that their posts will be viewed by all members of the Google classroom and that the instructor (teacher) has the option to revoke any individual’s posting privileges if necessary. Finally, ask parents to join in the classroom discussion threads, posts, polls, etc. Google Classroom has an easy option to “invite guardians” through MCPS, so with one click, parents can join in the discussion as well!

The Art of the Apology

An interesting thing happened recently when I asked my students to write an apology note to the substitute for treating her disrespectfully—they had no clue what to do. As I distributed paper and demanded that they begin, I quickly realized that my students were not being intentionally uncooperative. They truly didn’t know how to approach a genuine apology letter. I was appalled, to put it lightly. This woman, who in my absence, had tried her best to help my 7th grade students with the work I had left, was ignored, defied, mocked, and ridiculed, yet the class had nothing to say? Was this due to a lack of social awareness? Had they never heard a formal apology before? Was their reticent response just a new level of entitlement? I was not prepared to teach them about the art of a formal apology—I’d wrongfully assumed that they knew how to tackle this task.

Cut to a quickly thrown together, yet comprehensive, mini-lesson on the key components of an apology.

  • Begin with the actual apology, “I’m sorry…” DO NOT follow up or continue your apology with the word “but.” This simple subordinating conjunction completely negates the actual apology. It implies that you are not fully remorseful, and even worse, writing “but” indicates that you believe you have an excuse for wronging the other person. Tell students to explain themselves at a later time if necessary; it shouldn’t be part of the apology.
  • Take responsibility and genuinely own your mistake. Admitting your error is half the battle when delivering an apology—until you acknowledge your misstep, any apology will be considered insincere.
  • Owning your mistake also means explicitly stating what you did to hurt the other person. This requires children and teens to be reflective and to truly consider how their actions had a negative impact on the other person. Stating your mistake shows the other person that you have acknowledged their feelings and put yourself in their shoes to identify how you may have hurt them.
  • Offer a solution to the mistake—this could mean promising to do better next time or perhaps to try your best not to repeat this mistake again. Sometimes the solution comes easily; however, it is also kind to ask the other person what you could do to mend the situation. If their response is reasonable, follow through on that request.
  • Ask for forgiveness. This can be difficult because it requires kids to leave themselves unguarded and open to rejection. They may worry that the other person will claim that they can’t forgive at the moment—this is okay. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’ll always get it, but putting the ball in the other person’s court after apologizing is pretty much all we can do.

Word Choice and Why it Matters: Part I

As an educator, I am always trying to convey the importance of word choice in students’ writing. Finding and using appropriate terms and phrases is critical—not only because it is almost always a significant component on an essay rubric, but because word choice in writing is a reflection of one’s ability to communicate precisely and effectively. Furthermore, a student with a knack for appropriate word choice in his writing is typically known to have a higher rate of expressive vocabulary. Regardless of a student’s future college major or career preference down the road, the more comfortable a student is with his ability to communicate, the more confident he will be when navigating the professional world.

 

Since there are such direct links between vocabulary and intellect, it strikes me as odd that there isn’t more of an emphasis on acquiring vocab skills in the primary, grade-level English classes these days. Of course, students will often be confronted with bolded or underlined terms in a class reading, accompanied by a brief definition in the footnotes, but this level of vocabulary exposure is hardly effective. Vocabulary taught in a vacuum, relating only to the current text in front of them, does nothing to provide students with a robust repertoire of word usage. Instead, these vaguely “brushed over” terms are taught briefly in isolation and then cast aside, rarely to be revisited.

There are strategies, not just for English classrooms, but for all subject areas, that can help students build vocabulary without the typical rote memorization that comes to mind from past decades.

 

Bring back the word wall

In elementary classrooms, we used to see brightly colored vocabulary words taped to the front wall, encouraging students to use these terms in conversation. This same level of visibility goes a long way in the secondary classrooms as well. The key for success is to present students with these terms and then connect them cross-curricularly. If foreshadowing is on the English classroom word wall, the teacher should make a point to relate this term to other, perhaps more familiar terms, like forecasting or hypothesizing in science, or indicate, imply, or symbolize in math or world history. The intent is to build connections to as many familiar terms as possible so that students better understand how this new word could be used to more precisely convey what they mean.

 

In addition to the word wall display, teachers should also instruct students to capture the new terms on paper, along with the related terms that they already know. Essentially, they are constructing a word web to illustrate subtle differences in terminology and how certain scenarios would utilize foreshadowing, while a similar scenario would be better suited by saying “hypothesizing.”

 

Color coding these word webs and word walls in the classroom can help students begin to categorize terminology as well. Perhaps science-related terms could be highlighted in green, while history/civics-related terms could be displayed in orange. Below is an example of how one word could translate through multiple contents: English class: adaptation; science class: evolution; math class: modification; history class: transformation.

 

Each of these terms is related to some sort of change from the original. An adaptation in English class means to take a classic work and rewrite it through a different lens. As students see the relationship between these terms, they are better able to distinguish the subtle differences and how each term would be more suitable to a certain scenario.

Modifying Test Questions

In special education, the term “modification” typically means something very different from the term “accommodation.” Both involve some form of adaptation to material or instruction in order to assist students with specific learning needs. Modifications, however, are elevated forms of assistance in that the learning goals for the student are actually changed or modified. However, the suggestions for modifications outlined below do not change the learning goal at all. Instead, these are simple suggestions that teachers can implement on assignments and assessments to allow students with special needs optimal opportunities to express their knowledge and/or skills.

  • Creating a word bank that students can use as a resource on an assessment helps to ensure that issues with memory recall, spelling, dyslexia, etc., do not interfere with the student’s ability to demonstrate his knowledge of vocabulary terms or concepts. A word bank also allows students the opportunity to cross off or eliminate answers as they progress through the questions, helping to visually limit answer options. This strategy is especially helpful for students with testing anxiety or executive functioning challenges.
  • Chunk fewer test questions per page to help minimize the text presented to students. Again, this strategy helps to keep testing nerves at bay since limited text per page is less intimidating. Fewer questions per page allows for greater white space and larger margins, which help to ensure that students do not inadvertently skip or overlook a question.
  • Provide definitions for concept terms that are not being tested to ensure that complex vocabulary, unrelated to what is actually being assessed, does not impede the student’s ability to answer the question at hand.
  • Reduce the number of answer options for multiple choice questions. This strategy helps to visually streamline the questions and help students narrow in on correct responses without the unnecessary distraction of numerous answer options. Instead of having an A, B, C, D, and E, consider limiting multiple choice answers to 3-4 options. The student is still demonstrating her knowledge of the content; the opportunity for error is just slightly reduced.
  • Use underlining, italics, or bold font to indicate an important term or crucial section of the passage. This visually draws attention to key concepts so that students can easily refer back to them in a lengthy text without getting overwhelmed by searching. Since many students struggle with short term recall, skimming while rereading, and isolating key details from superfluous information, the visual cues reduce the impact that these obstacles might present. In doing this, teachers are not providing answers—they are simply helping to highlight key points to clarify what the question is actually asking.
  • For written responses, teachers can help reduce stress on students by providing a grading rubric, which specifies how their written response will be evaluated. If spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not part of the learning objective, be sure to clarify that to students so that they do not get too hung up on perfect spelling. Keep the directions for the prompt or response simple and direct. Abstract or nuanced language can derail any student, but especially those with learning challenges.

Promoting Self-efficacy

Because of the major focus on “growth mindset” in today’s educational world, it only makes sense to discuss self-efficacy alongside it. The two go hand-in-hand. Students with a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, believe that, through effort and tenacity, they can improve in their endeavors. Similarly, self-efficacy refers to one’s confidence in his/her ability to execute specific actions in order to attain a goal or arrive at a desired outcome. Essentially, self-efficacy promotes the idea that learning is all about setting your mind to something and going for it, no matter the obstacles. This level of grit and self-confidence is crucial to young learners, which is why it is imperative that teachers help students to develop self-efficacy. Below are suggested instructional strategies and practices can actually help to promote self-efficacy in the classroom.

 

  • Ask students to talk through and/or write down their method of arriving at an answer or conclusion. This deliberate level of analysis requires students to tap into their reasoning on a metacognitive level—they are asked to think about their own thinking. In being able to articulate why they arrived at a certain answer, students are subconsciously building confidence and developing self-efficacy.
  • Create lessons that promote Socratic dialogue and ask students to question what they are learning, reading, and exploring. This promotes a level of agency over the learning; they are no longer passively receiving the information, they are asked to engage in it and critique it.
  • Design activities and projects that allow for student choice. When students are invested in what they are researching, their exploration becomes more immersive—they more readily dive into the material and gain confidence while doing so. Choice also boosts motivation to succeed, reaffirming one’s self-efficacy once the goal is met.
  • Require students to “create the test” as a review or practice before an assessment. Then, if students’ sample questions are appropriate, include those student-created questions or concepts on the actual exam. Again, this practice helps to hand over the control; the teacher is not the only “keeper of the knowledge.” Instead, students are also given a hand in measuring their own learning.
  • Utilize reflection forms or surveys to practice error analysis and boost students’ self-confidence for the next task. Reflective questions after an exam, essay, or project that hone in on a student’s genuine level of effort and preparation help to show students how they hold the keys to their own success. Include questions on the survey such as, “How did you expect to do?” or, “Based on the time, effort, energy and focus that you put in, did you perform the way you anticipated?” These reflective questions encourage students to think about the way that their preparation or lack thereof has a direct impact on their success. Over time, they will recognize a sense of control over their education, which ultimately builds self-efficacy.
  • Consider creating student portfolios, in which students organize and track their work throughout the year. It is important that students have a clear view of how they have progressed over the course of the school year and how they can set goals for growth in the future. Students also develop self-efficacy by critiquing their own past assignments. Teachers might consider asking students to respond to teacher feedback to include in the portfolio as well. That is, after reflecting and seeing the feedback, how would the student modify the work or assignment?