Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Say Something 2.0 (beta)

A couple weeks back my student teacher, Kim, was reading aloud to students from the novel, the Hunger Games, while students read aloud in their books.  Throughout reading, she would take short breaks, allowing students to participate in Say Something, a "during-reading" activity is exactly what its name describes. For it, students stop reading, turn to a partner, and say something about the text. The partner responds, then takes his or her turn saying something and getting a response. The entire process doesn't take more than a minute or two, after which students continue reading.

While I circulated the classroom during one of the Say Something sessions, I overheard multiple conversations that I thought were absolutely brilliant.  There were students making these incredibly insightful comments on what was happening in the story that had rarely spoke up in class. But just as I started thinking about how much I was liking this activity, it occurred to me that there was something that I did not like. Here were all of these great ideas about a text popping up around the room, but outside their own conversation, students didn't get to hear them. I was thinking about solutions that didn't necessarily involve a whole class discussion (which I love but would take away from the amount of time that doing Say Something allows to be spend actually reading), when my thoughts drifted back to an evening last week.....

I was sitting on my couch alone, family asleep, and was watching one of the Republican debates. Not after long, my interest began to fade, and I decided to check my Twitter account.  I noticed that a few of those I followed were tweeting about the debate, and curious, I decided to search Twitter for all debate-related tweets.  My engagement level began to shift almost immediately as I moved between the debate on television and the real time commentary in response to the politicians on the stage.  In some cases, the statements made on the tweets made me laugh out loud, others presented a perspectives I hadn't considered, and other tweets were so ridiculous that I was left with no choice but to tweet back to them.

It then occurred to me that my activity on Twitter was a lot like that of my students during Say Something--I and others commented to a common experience and shared responses in return.  But being able to carry out these interactions in a medium like Twitter (as opposed to the physical classroom), had some distinct advantages: I didn't have to wait my turn, I could comment at any time that I liked, and the size of the group with whom I interacted had no limits.

Seemed to me like moving the Say Something activity in my class to a digital space could make it a lot more productive and engaging. I couldn't wait to try it out.

Since Twitter is blocked in at my school, I set up a chat room in Today's Meet, and shared the link to it with my students on my website.  The instructions for this new version of the activity (yes, I did call it Say Something 2.0) were modified after my own experiences with Twitter.   I would play the audio version I had of The Hunger Games, while students would also read along in their books.  When students wanted to Say Something in response to what was happening in the book, they would type their comment into our chat room, where other students could then read it and respond, if they so chose.  Afterwards, students would refer the the transcript and write a brief reflection on their contributions and learning during the activity.

I had a feeling that this lesson was going to be awesome.  It was going to pull kids into a book in a way that just reading alone couldn't do.  They would extract levels of meaning from the text that they otherwise never would have known.  Even my most weak and reluctant readers would not want class to end.  Students may even want to applaud at the end of the sometimes people do in the movie theater.

But looking back on it now, I guess I really shouldn't have been that surprised when the lesson crashed and burned shortly after it got off the ground first period.

After only reading a couple pages in the book, blank looks began to creep across my students faces.  Comments typed became less connected to the text.  No one was even attempting to follow along in the book.  And I, still clinging to the hope of what I thought this day would become, let the lesson continue until my students finally brought me back to reality.

One of my best students stood up and shouted, "I have no idea what's going on!"

"This book sucks!" another shouted.  Seeing others nod their head in agreement, I realized that class would not end today with a standing ovation.  I decided to cut our loses and salvage what I could.  We closed the computers, turned off the audio, and reread together as a class.

Seems that it's near impossible to follow along in a novel while typing comments and reading a string of others scrolling across a screen, even when that novel is being read aloud.

I chalked this up to a learning experience about kids, technology, and multi-tasking.  But my learning did not end at the realization that this was a failed lesson.  Actually, that's just where my learning restarted. 

When my second period class walked in, we tried the lesson again, but this time with one minor change: we didn't try to read the novel and write at the same time, so it was sort of structured like the no-tech version of Say Something.   I made a few other changes as the day progressed in response to what I saw happening with my students.  By my sixth period class, here's roughly what the lesson looked like, with my revisions written in bold:
  1.    Students entered the class, logged on to their computers, signed in to the chat room.  Students needed to join the room using their real first name (having taught for this many years, I don't know why didn't foresee the need to make this one explicit from the start).
  2. I reviewed the procedures for the Say Something activity we did the previous day, and explained how throughout or time reading today, we would stop and say something, but type our comments in the chat room, as well as respond to the ideas of others using the @ symbol and that person's name.  Commonly understood abbreviations or text-speak was fine, so long as the abbreviated words were school appropriate. 
  3. While we read the story together, all computers were left closed.
  4. At various places throughout the story, we would stop reading, open computers, and take 5 minutes or so to have a Say Something conversation about the text.  Students could refer back to what they had read in the text while participating in the conversation, but not read ahead.
  5. After with about 10 minutes left in the class we would stop reading, and students would complete a self assessment/reflection of their reading, learning, and participation in the activity.  To do so, they would look back over the transcript of the conversation and complete this Google Form that I had posted to my class blog.
That's it.  The lesson took about an entire hour, and it rocked.  That change in format I made after first period made all the difference.  Being able to direct their attention on the novel, students understood it and were able to have a conversation in our Today's Meet room that was productive, and in many ways, transpired like I had initially hoped it would.  The online space for the discussion enabled multiple conversations to take place at once.  It was difficult to follow them all, but I remember at most points noticing the majority of my students to be involved in at least one strand at any given time. And when compared with our conversations in person, it did not seem like anything was lost on the depth of the ideas being shared.  Actually, it seemed like having students put ideas in text format (that they could spend more time with to process and return back to if needed), combined with the exposure to a wider ranges ideas shared and conversations to drop in on, deepened the level at which they experienced the novel. 

Discovering new possibilities

There was something else that I saw happen, something that I didn't expect, that also added an additional layer to this activity.  My students didn't want to do it I had directed them to do.  I figured that the reading and writing happening in our chat room would require students' full attention, so in my attempt to keep students from experiencing the type of information overload that afflicted my first period, I shushed the whispers I heard among students during our Say Something breaks. 

After a while, though, I began to notice that many of the comments I was trying to stifle were in fact tied to the conversation taking place on-line.  So, after trying in two classes to redirect students' verbal comments to the chat room ("talk with your fingers," I heard myself say), I decided to see what would happen in my last class if I just let them talk.  And what happened blew me away.

Sure enough, my sixth period began whispering to one another in response to what they were reading in the chat, and when I didn't make any move to stop the talking out, other students joined it.  It was as if the conversation just changed spaces, but after listening to it for a little while, I realized that there more going on than just a venue change. 

I noticed that some of the comments students saying out loud were weird.  Not weird like off-task or silly, but weird like disconnected.  One student would respond to another even though they didn't ask a question. Or someone would interject a comment that was insightful but completely unrelated to the topic conversation taking place.

It wasn't until that I looked down at my computer that I realized what was happening. The online conversation never stopped.  Students were still using this space to respond to others' ideas, both posted in the chat room and shared out loud. And the same thing was taking place in our physical class discussion.

I had never before thought about bringing such a hybrid-type conversation into my classroom.  But I really liked what I saw, and it's got me thinking.... 

I feel like physical class discussion and conversations carried out digitally (chat, disc forums) have their respective place in my classroom.  Each has their own strengths and weakness with respect to the exchange of ideas and student learning. But in these hybrid conversations that I saw unfold in my classroom when I let students chose the mode in which they expressed their ideas, students seemed to interact in both spaces simultaneously without much trouble; actually, this is where they gravitated to naturally. 

And from what I can tell, they benefited from the experience, with these benefits stemming from the advantages that were afforded through interacting in this unique hybrid environment. I saw students draw out deeper levels of meaning from the text from being exposed to a greater number of interpretations during the short bursts of interactions that the activity allowed.  All students seemed to be engaged.  The overly vocal ones got to say what they needed to, and those who were typically quiet or just had a hard time getting a word in, had an outlet for their ideas. 

I'm excited about what we stumbled accross, but I'm still processing it.

I'm wondering what it means that my students so naturally were able to carry out a conversation in two spaces at once.  I didn't set up the lesson like this; it was they who pulled it in that direction. One that I found to be incredibly surprising considering how much trouble students in my first period had when trying to follow along in a novel while also conversing online. I'm sure the complexity of the language used in the novel had something to do with it, but I'd bet that it is also, in part related, to their communication experiences outside of school.

I'm wondering what this means for my teaching. I've known that there are some communication differences between my students and I ever since I've seen the ease at which they can carry on a conversation with a few of their friends in-person while simultaneously texting others.  I couldn't do this to save my life. So on one hand, my experiences with our hybrid discussion may have been a lesson to me about engaging kids at their level.  But on the other, I keep thinking about this infographic I saw the other day on the decrease in brain activity scientists are finding in people who try to multitask, and it makes me wonder if encouraging such types of interactions would actually be a disservice to my students. 

So, I'm thinking now about what role, if any, such a hybrid conversation could play in my classroom.  What would a class discussion or Socratic Seminar look like if it was carried out in this manner?   Is this a step in the direction of 21st Century Learning? Or is is a step backward for the learners of today?