Over the last two weeks, Heather Durnin and I have worked to bring the kids in the Idea Hive closer together on a daily basis.
We’ve been reading one novel with our two classes, but we’ve been doing it over skype. Wondering what kind of support we can bring to a text with tech tools, we decided to take a novel (in our case The Book Thief) and read it aloud to our classes. Each day at 10:30 AM Snow Lake time (11:30 in Wingham) our two classrooms meet on skype and we take turns reading this powerful novel. One day Heather reads aloud, the next day I do. But the person who isn’t reading also has a job to do – they run a backchannel. The Book Thief can be a difficult text for kids to understand, it takes a lot of discussion to fill in blanks and talk through the context of young teens growing up in Nazi Germany. So we decided to add a backchannel to the reading. While one of us reads, the kids in both classrooms and the other teacher chat in a today’s meet room, discussing the text, asking questions, making predictions and dropping in great pieces of the text as it is read aloud over skype.
Also, each day after we are finished our approximately 20 minutes of reading, we have set up a wall where the students from each class post their thoughts, opinions, questions, predictions and ideas from the day’s reading.
Doing a read aloud this way has been a great experience for a few reasons:
1.) The students get ongoing support with the text, live and in real time as it is being read aloud. Instead of just sitting in their desks listening and being interested or confused, they are able to post what is going on in their heads in this chat room getting instant feedback and support from 44 other students.
2.) They are getting all sorts of new and different perspectives on the text that they probably would not come up with on their own. Learning is stronger in a network than alone.
3.) Each day the chats and the wall are examined. As teachers, we can quickly see the students who are lost and confused giving us an opportunity to target them in our instruction. This way, we have a written record of the kinds of questions that are being asked and the troubles that kids are having.
As part of this, I examined the first two chats and found a few interesting things:
1.) The kids are making few predictions about what is being read to them. This is an area that we need to target.
2.) As the kids get more comfortable with this process, they are interacting with each other more and more. In the first two chats alone, there was a significant jump in the number of students who were either posing questions about what was being read, or responding to the questions of others. While the first chat definitely did see some interaction, the second saw a dramatic increase in this.
3.) Those with more IM experience have quickly taught others some of the conventions of working like this. For example, in the first chat, one student typed an “@” symbol to answer a question posed by another. This quickly spread and is now standard. As well, the students will type an “*” symbol to correct a spelling error they made in one posting to correct it in another. When this first emerged in a chat, one student specifically asked another what it meant. Answered that the “*” is used to correct something. Once again, this has spread throughout the room and is now standard.
4.) There have been 546 postings in the chatrooms between the two reading sessions. While there certainly have been some off – task comments posted, these have been very few. That shows the amount of activity that is going on in the minds of our students as we read to them. Constructing meaning is certainly not a passive, receptive process.
Since we’ve started we’ve had to read a few times on our own because of technical difficulties or scheduling problems, and to be honest, it’s been kind of a lonely experience. Once you start working in networked ways like this, the power of being together is something that you expect. Working on your own just isn’t the same.