Back in September our middle school watched an inspiring Ted Talk by William Kamkwamba, a young man who developed a windmill to power electricity for his village in Malawi. My 6th grade students were so enthralled by his story that I decided to make William's biography The Boy who harnessed the Wind a read aloud book for class. Each day, my students would eagerly gather in our meeting corner, with a variety of pillows, ball chairs and floor chairs awaiting the next chapter of William's story.
Our discussions during these read aloud times became very powerful as students compared living conditions, houses, jobs, schools and life in general to that of their own. Their general conclusion was that we have so much and they have so little. It was difficult for 6th graders to comprehend that this story took place not a hundred years ago but as recently as the 1990's. At the same time, students could see some benefits in this simpler life…playing outside in the fields with handmade, creative toys and building a multitude of projects with whatever could be found…quite appealing to many of my 6th graders.
The one problem that became apparent all too often during this time was the time spent in discussion and the fact that not everyone was able to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions every time we met. We then talked about what we could do to improve this situation...students suggested using name cards, having only a certain number of comments each class, taking turns from a list etc. but nothing we came up with really solved the problem.
Recently, I participated in a conference online using Todaysmeet and thought...why not use this in class for a silent discussion and see how it works? Todaysmeet is a platform where a number of people can very easily and quickly sign into a private chat room and discuss whatever topic is chosen.
I began my class next day by asking everyone to stay seated at tables for our read aloud and explained that we were going to experiment with a new social media tool. I quickly explained what I had used and then had everyone sign into our room called Boy and gave two tasks that everyone had to complete.
1) Everyone must write at least one statement, opinion or question during the read aloud session.
2) Everyone must comment on someone else's statement, opinion or question.
I had the online chat projected on our screen so that we could all follow what was being said.
For about ten minutes I read aloud and then stopped. There was silence around me and I didn’t know what to expect…
I asked who still had to write something for number 1, expecting a bunch of quieter students to say they hadn’t yet. To my surprise, all students had written at least one comment. In fact, everyone had responded at least once and most were on their second or third comment. Not only had all students commented but they had also responded to someone else. I continued to read and the discussion stream continued to grow.
When we were finished, we took a few minutes to look over our discussion on Todaysmeet and I was surprised to see many thoughtful and thought provoking statements, opinions and questions. My next step was to ask the students how this experiment went. Overwhelmingly the outcome was positive and all students said this was a fun and fair way to have our discussion. The one negative – it was difficult to listen and comment at the same time. Students had two comments to make about this…it may get easier as we do it more and next time we could stop reading and thendcomment. It was unanimous that we try it again.
Our first attempt at backchanneling was a definite success and it brings me back to my constant mantra that to use technology successfully in the classroom teachers must be willing to try and experiment with new tools. It is not necessary to be an expert and it is so much fun to learn along side our students.