The good kind of chatting in class

More on how I used GoogleDocs last week:

I’m afraid that what I’m about to share sounds like the worst idea ever, but I actually think it worked pretty well for some students.

They were all working on laptops in my classroom (I had reserved a mobile lab for the day), and they were finishing their research papers. Some were putting on finishing touches, some were still drafting, some, somehow, were still researching.

Here’s what I did: I opened three or four student papers on my own computer (they had all shared them with me). I announced to the class whose papers I had open at any given time so that they could chat me in the sidebar that GoogleDocs has.

Those students would then chat me a few questions, asking me to look at their conclusion or a specific quote they used, asking for help on how to start a particular sentence or if their formatting was right. I could answer them in the chat sidebar or type directly into their document in a different color if that seemed like an easier way to explain something.

Sometimes, when I’d type some complicated feedback, I’d see a kid reading it, struggling to make sense of it. Then I’d call out from my desk, “Hey Katie, does that make sense?” And they’d assure me that they did, or, after a few minutes, they’d chat me a follow-up question. Or they’d make some edits, then ask me – via chat – to take a look at it again and see if it’s better.

On one level, this sounds absurd to me. It’s like the stories you hear of parents texting their kids to come down to dinner (apparently, this happens a lot). I definitely value face-to-face interaction. If a student wants me to show me an early draft of a paper, I always insist they come sit down with me so we could talk about it.

But there were a few things that made this experiment seem worthwhile to me.

1. I could help more students.

I think I was able to look at more papers this way than if I had been sitting down at various students’ desks with them. When I do that, I think I tend to spend too much time at that one desk. I get drawn into reading the whole paper, and I end up ignoring much of the rest of the class. Most importantly, I usually end up only bouncing around the desks of the students who ask for help. In my experiment, I systematically opened a few documents at a time, working my way “around” the entire classroom. And we all know that the kids who don’t ask for help are often the ones who need the most.

2. I was less intimdating.

I don’t consider myself an intimidating person. Most of my freshmen are taller than me. But still, I’m a teacher, so plenty of kids will freeze up and not ask the questions on their minds when I’m crouched down at their desk or reading over their shoulders. Through chat, I think a lot of kids are more comfortable. They might be more willing to admit what they don’t understand. They even seemed more willing to say things like “thank you.” Which was nice.

3. They had more time to process

When working one-on-one with a student, I often find myself talking a lot, giving tons of writing advice to a silently nodding person. I ask for reassurance that they understand, which is often greeted with a hesitant “…yeah, I think I get it…” When those students go home to revise their work, they might forget what I had said or realize that they really didn’t get it. During these chat sessions, since I was leaving each document open for 5-10 minutes while looking at the other two or three, that first student then had time to look over my comments, process them, think about what they didn’t understand, and ask a question to help cement their own understanding. This seemed valuable, and it seemed like something that couldn’t happen in a face-to-face interaction, especially with a student who processes information at a slower speed.

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