How a silent discussion opened the door for my students

I sat with the group, silently observing their small group discussion. Although normally she finds ways around it, on this day,  my student who struggles with stuttering had an almost impossible time getting her ideas out. When she is nervous, the words seem to break apart in her mouth. I know she has amazing things to say, because her blog is thoughtful, sweet, and expresses the thoughts of a deep thinker, but speaking to others while being watched was making that ability to dig deep into a text and pull out the heart of an idea invisible to the others. I knew I had to do something.

Backchannel chat and Twitter to the rescue.

In preparation of a student led, Socratic discussion, students had read almost half of Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. They had close read passages, analyzed them for ethos and pathos, and written countless short answer responses. I had asked them to come up with open ended questions in anticipation of this discussion, but I didn’t think putting this student on display was fair to her. So I proposed a silent, Twitter style, chat instead.

First, I created a free backchannel chat at Then I created an assignment in Google Classroom with the link to the chatroom. I explained the format of a Twitter chat, with Q1 representing the first question and A1 its answer. I reviewed the norms of a good discussion, with interaction between its members, and let them appoint a student discussion leader. Students typed their favorite open ended question into the public comments on the assignment, and the discussion leader added the appropriate Q1 etc. to the question and pasted it in the chat. She monitored when student comments seemed to die down and added the next Q when it seemed to fit.

The chat was a success. Not only did the student who struggles with stuttering have success, but several of my more introverted students shone as well. In fact, if you look at the exchange they had in the above screenshot, you can just see the connections building. It was epic. I will definitely do this again.


Dragging the Sage off the Stage

We all want our students to learn. No one stays in teaching for years desiring to see students fail. In fact, many of us try desperately to reach all our students.  Like the stage manager, terrified the actors will forget their lines, rip their costumes, or fall off the stage, we charge about our classroom, trying to ensure all students learn what we envision is vital to education.

But the stage manager must let go on opening night.  The actors must be allowed to perform the play they worked so hard to perfect. This week, the stage manager let go a little of control and allowed some actors to take center stage.

I had created a video over the weekend that discussed some literary devices in our summer reading novel, All But My Life. I had been meaning to do a follow up video, covering some more of the literary devices, when I stopped. Why was i making all the videos? Why couldn’t my students help? So I dismantled my plans and made a list of tasks that I wanted my advanced students to complete that week. Writing, speaking, acquiring vocabulary, almost all my big hitters were present.

This week, my class discovered some basic truths, much like actors discover during a dress rehearsal.

We discovered that asking 5 students to create a video on an app they’ve never used before takes more than 50 minutes.

We discovered that setting discrete deadlines for tasks is important, because some students procrastinate.

We discovered that flexibility and problem solving is really important, because sometimes the technology doesn’t work.

Flipping your classroom is not about making teacher videos for homework. It is about empowering students to take charge of their own learning. Leave the stage to the actors on opening night, but make sure that the lights are on, the curtains are open, the mics are live, and the popcorn is hot.