Blend Online and In-class Discussions to Give Every Student a Voice

“When I engage in dialogue, I recognize that those I speak with are equal to me, and I work from the assumption that they hold within them wisdom, knowledge, ideas, and gifts.” That line from Jim Knight’s book Unmistakable Impact highlights the power of dialogue as a vehicle to learn from the people around us.

The value of discussions can hardly be overstated. They allow students to:

  • Articulate their ideas
  • Ask questions
  • Learn from different perspectives
  • Make connections
  • Think critically about new information and ideas
  • Receive validation from their peers

The act of telling or explaining what they know cements students’ understanding of concepts. Conversely, struggling students benefit from hearing their peers’ ideas, opinions, and explanations.  Even the opportunity to ask questions can help students to begin to deconstruct challenging ideas or concepts.

I wholeheartedly believe that the potential of the group far exceeds the intellect of any one individual in the classroom–myself included. Despite my passionate belief that discussions are an integral part of the learning process, early in my teaching career I failed at generating successful equitable discussions in class. I asked follow up questions, used “wait time” and employed a variety of other strategies designed to lure students into discussion, but the same five kids dominated discussions and everyone else remained silent.

There are a variety of impediments to real-time discussions that result in excluding a majority of students from participating. This lack of equity in real-time discussions creates an imbalance that can be corrected when discussions take place asynchronously online. This asynchronous environment provides something in-class discussion can’t: time.

For the last three years, I’ve used Schoology’s robust discussion functionality to facilitate online discussions to complement our in-class conversations. This online space gives every single student the opportunity to engage in our class dialogue.

Most students need time to process information before responding to a question.  Yet in traditional classrooms, time is a luxury most teachers do not have. In her article “Effective Classroom Discussions,” Selma Wasserman describes the common teacher experience: “So much to be done! So little time!  The pressure on teachers to get everything done by the end of the school day is formidable. That race with the clock often forces teachers to speed up lessons and makes them lose patience with students who need more time to say what’s on their minds.”

Wassermann identifies a key conflict in the classroom: the race against the clock to cover curriculum versus the desire to give students a voice in class discussions. She accurately depicts the frustration many teachers face when attempting to incorporate dynamic discussions into their classrooms.

When teachers introduce an online avenue where students are able to express their thoughts outside the time crunch of a normal school day, all students can have a voice in the class. This equity of voice fosters relationship building, increases participation and encourages deeper engagement.

For those teachers who are frustrated with the quality of in-class discussions, I’d encourage you to explore how blending asynchronous online discussions with small group in-class conversations can lead to more powerful students interactions and deeper learning.

My first book, Blended Learning in Grades 4-12, provides concrete resources for creating a safe space online, building an online community, designing dynamic discussion questions, and supporting students in saying something substantial online.

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Create Your Own Custom Search Engine

When I work with elementary teachers, one of the biggest concerns I hear about is the fear of what students will find online. Teachers know it’s important to teach students how to search effectively, evaluate website credibility, and cite their sources, but it can be scary when teachers are working with younger students.

One way to teach these important skills, while keeping students safe online, is to create a custom search engine. This way teachers can identify appropriate and safe online websites to include in their custom search engines.

Here’s how you can create one to use with your students:

Step 1: Go to Google Custom Search Engine

Step 2: Click “Add” and copy and paste the sites you want to include in your custom search. You can include site URLs or page URLs in your custom search.

Step 3: As you add sites, the custom search engine will automatically generate a “Name of the search engine,” but you can easily change it. When you have decided on a name, click “Create.”

Step 4: Click “Public URL” and share that with your students directly. You can also click “Get Code” to add the custom search engine to your class website.

Don’t Have Enough Time to Create a Custom Search Engine?

If you don’t have a lot of time, here are two “safe search” options that elementary teachers can use with students.

Safe Search Kids

 Sweet Search

Please share your favorite kid-friendly search engines!

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New Year’s Resolution: I’m Moving ALL Assessment into the Classroom

I don’t typically make “pie in the sky” New Year’s resolutions, but

this year I am bound and determined to move ALL assessment into the classroom!Click To Tweet This may sound like a crazy resolution given that most teachers spend hours of time outside of school assessing their students’ work. However, there are three reasons I’d argue we should NOT spend our time outside of class grading:

  1. Our prep time is better spent designing creative and engaging lessons.
  2. Real-time feedback and assessment are way more effective.
  3. We don’t get paid for the time we spend grading outside of class.

The main reason most teachers spend hours grading outside of their school day is because of lack of time. I believe this lack of time stems from our approach to teaching. If teachers spend the majority of their class lecturing or transferring information, there isn’t time for consistent, real-time feedback.

As I’ve embraced technology and blended learning models, I’ve found it much easier to create time and space to provide feedback as students are working. Below are three blended learning models. I’ll explain how I plan to use each specifically to create the time needed to move assessment back into the classroom.

The Station Rotation Model does just what the name suggests–students rotate through a series of online and offline stations. One of those stations is the teacher-led station. As students move through this teacher-led station, I can use this time to provide feedback on my students’ work. If we are focused on how to cite online resources or how to generate a hypothesis, this station gives me a chance to actually read and edit my students work.

Typically, my students will come to this station with Chromebooks that way I can open up each of their Google documents in Google Classroom and leave comments, ask questions, and suggest improvements directly on their work.

The Flipped Classroom Model is a wonderful inversion that can also be used to free the teacher from living at the front of the classroom. Whenever I am tempted to talk at my students or explain something, I make a video instead. Recording a video does take preparation outside of class (just because I’m not grading doesn’t mean I won’t be working outside of school hours!), but the advantage is that students can self-pace through that information (pausing and rewinding) and they have access to it anytime online if they need to watch it again. Plus, I can incorporate these video lessons into my station rotation lessons with an in-class flip!

So, for those teachers who are using their teacher-led station exclusively to teach concepts or model a process, it’s helpful to consider moving some of that online with the flipped classroom where students either engage with the information at home prior to class or in the classroom with the in-class flip. Then the teacher-led station can be used for assessment and feedback.

Last, but not least, is the Whole Group Rotation–a modern spin on the Lab Rotation. In this model, the class rotates between online and offline activities as a whole group. When the entire class is online working with adaptive software, digital curriculum, or online tools, I have time to work individually with students. This time is great for one-on-one coaching, formative and summative assessments, goal setting, and conversations about final grades.

My goal is to use a mix of blended learning models and technology to create the time I need in the classroom to assess my students’ work and provide them with the individual real-time feedback they need to grow as learners.

Wish me luck in manifesting my New Year’s resolution! I’ll make sure to post updates about the challenges and successes I encounter on my journey to move all assessment into my classroom.

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