This year I have been working towards transitioning my students into the role of teacher. I wanted them to feel confident in their ability to design interesting and dynamic questions, facilitate both in-class and online discussions, and guide meaningful learning experiences. I was motivated by my belief that students who are able to successfully “teach” their peers demonstrate mastery of the subject. It is an empowering and incredibly meaningful way to end the year, but the process has been slow.

At the start of the year, I began integrating Collaborize Classroom into my curriculum to replace much of the pen and paper homework I assigned previously. I began simply with online icebreakers and focused on establishing the expectations for online behavior with my “Dos and Don’ts of Student Online Communication.” The icebreakers presented students with informal, fun questions to practice this new skill set. They enjoyed these questions and began to learn each others’ names. It helped to build an online community that would eventually spill over into our in classroom community.

Once students had responded to a variety of online icebreakers and demonstrated a strong sense of how to communicate respectfully online, I began posting 1-2 meaty discussion questions each night related to the reading. I, then, worked with them to encourage substantial responses and meaningful replies to peers. At first it was a challenge to get students to expand their explanations and writing, so I spent a great deal of time modeling what a “substantive” posting looks like and providing concrete strategies for developing substantial responses. By winter break students were consistently responding in meaningful ways that drove the discussions forward.

blended learning | Online Discussions

After a semester focused on creating a safe virtual space and supporting students to encourage meaningful responses to peers, I had students begin to write their own questions. I showed examples of what strong questions look like, then we discussed the “Art of Asking Questions.” Once we had practiced together in class, they experimented with writing an online discussion question. During our Joy Luck Club unit, they designed a question every other week for their mother-daughter focus group to respond to. This allowed me to provide feedback on their questions. Collaborize enables students to ask questions that are then sent to me, so I can approve or deny them. When I denied a question, I was able to write a detailed note explaining what needed revision, thereby allowing students to correct and repost.

Each week, I would focus on a different aspect of asking questions. One week we discussed media- pictures, videos, documents- and how each can add depth to a question. The next week we discussed the various question types- Yes/No, Multiple Choice, Vote or Suggest and Forum- and how they can be used to structure different kinds of conversations. Most students began asking Forum questions without media. By the middle of second semester, students were routinely using different question types and including media.

Now as we wrap up the last few weeks of the year, we are in the middle of our final unit- literature circles. Students choose their book from a list of 8 titles. In their literature circle groups, they work on their own without any instruction from me. They each complete a literature circle “role” at the start of the week, which they post to our Collaborize site for their group members to respond to. Then the rest of the week, they complete “group responses” to each “role” and engage in discussions about the questions/tasks posted. Their questions have grown and developed as they have continued to hone their online discussion skills. Our work during second semester has transitioned students from the role of participant to the role of facilitator. To see them designing interesting questions with different question types and media is so exciting.


In class their work is completely self directed. The discussion leader guides a meaningful discussion about the night’s reading, the art director guides an artistic project and the theme theorist highlights themes from the novel to be discussed. I walk around absorbing the variety of conversations taking place around the room. Students lean in with interest, ask questions and compliment each other on insights. I feel like I am observing college students in a discussion group, instead of a room full of 15 and 16 year old high school students.

This has been an exercise of letting go for me. I realized through this process that the best gift I can give my students is the opportunity to create and lead.

2 Responses

  1. Caitlin,
    I love the idea of lit circles and am trying them with my sophomores. Is there any more information I could get from you about how to run these circles? I would be interested in anything you’re willing to share.
    Heidi Beguin

  2. Thank you, Shawn!

    My apologies for the late reply. I am just now wading through the mountains of SPAM that have build up on my blog while I finished the book I have been working on. Thank you for the comment. I, too, am a believer in students leading each other and assuming the role of teacher. They have so much potential but no practice at leading. Most of my students are used to be passive participants, so it takes some practice throwing them into the role of instructor. They surprise themselves and it makes the learning so much more powerful.


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