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I usually like to go with the flow as much as possible. I present problems to students, see what they come up with, and build up from there. Student mistakes and misconceptions get my mind thinking about solutions. However, virtual teaching is requiring the development of all my teaching superpowers.

 

Teaching in a virtual setting presents one type of problem that has been extremely frustrating – lack of student engagement. In brick and mortar classrooms, if a student was unfocused we could stand next to them to hold them accountable, make eye contact, or sit a student next to a helpful partner. Students were immersed in an academic environment rich with learning just by their mere physical presence. Unfortunately, in a virtual setting, students now have the option of opting out of learning. They are surrounded by technical distractions and the everyday distractions of home. Educators have huge responsibilities and limited resources for getting and keeping the attention of students. I have been trying and testing all of my teaching powers, and recently I had to put more structure into one of my instructional practices. I usually am very flexible and let things flow in the classroom by asking for volunteers to share their work but, this volunteer approach kept leading me to the same volunteers. I finally said, “Forget it!” I started assigning students specific roles in class: the sharer, the analyzer, and the complimenter. Guess what? It’s working!

 

The Task

In the primary grades, I tend to see 1-2 students in a classroom who are oversharers and dominate the class conversation while other students fight to be noticed. In the primary grades, some children have not yet learned how to limit their speaking time. Other students may be less confident and therefore afraid to speak up, while some students are comfortable letting others take the lead.

You can see many of these same behaviors in upper-grade classes but, the upper-grade students begin to turn their cameras off, leave a screensaver on and either walk away, play on their phones, or watch Youtube videos simultaneously. Not all of the upper-grade students do this, but unfortunately, many of them do. I spend many hours staring at about eight real faces, twenty-five blank screens, and occasional responses popping up in the chat. I have been grappling with how to alter this dynamic.

I begin by posing a problem or problems. I give the students an adequate amount of time to solve at least one problem independently. Students hold up their work to the screen to show me their complete work or work in progress. I give them a thumbs up or send them a message in the chat. Once most of the students who are actively participating are done with at least one problem, I begin assigning them roles- sharer, analyzer, complimenters.  I might say-

  • “Zoe, you will be sharing your work today. Make sure it is neat and easily understandable to others.”
  • “Jack, you will be analyzing Zoe’s work and describing what you see. See if you can figure out why she did what they did.”
  • “Jamie and Marcus, you will be complimenting Zoe or Jack by saying something you appreciate about what they did or said.”

Within a one-hour lesson, we can usually go through this process 3 – 4 times, meaning 12-16 students actively participate every day.  *Administrators and coaches this process has also been effective during professional development workshops.

 

 

 

Sharing

In an hour, I select up to 3 – 4 students to share their work. The students I select to share are those who turn their cameras on, show their work to me, and make a valid or valiant effort to solve the problem(s).When selecting who shares their work, I have a clear plan in mind. The students who share may: 1) dominate the class conversations and won’t allow anyone else air time until they have had their say, 2) are shy and have great ideas, but rarely volunteer or share them with the class, 3) have an excellent strategy that I want the other students to learn from, or 4) are willing to share. I never force a student to share their work in front of others. Forcing a student to share can be viewed as an act of aggression on your part and can set the two of you up for conflict (we don’t have time for that).

I ask one student-sharer at a time to hold up their work to the camera without saying a word about it. The students’ work can serve as a model for the other students to use. Students can see that their peers are problem solvers and they can be problem solvers versus seeing the teacher as the provider of all mathematical knowledge. The students who share their work with the class build confidence, increase their knowledge by teaching others, and become the creators of a living document for student-to-student learning.

Analyzing

I am very strategic about who I ask to analyze the sharer’s work. The students I select to analyze and describe their peers’ work are typically the least engaged students of all. However, there is something fascinating about students who can’t or won’t produce work in class- they are often fantastic at analyzing and explaining their peers’ work. I get tears in my eyes when I think of a former fifth-grade student who was performing at a second-grade level in math. He was able to accurately describe how another student divided fractions to solve a problem. He also provided a valid reason why his fellow student solved it the way they did (in front of a team of principals and teachers).

When students do not share or produce work in class, there are usually underlying issues that we may not understand or recognize. Just because some students do not participate in the ways we would prefer does not mean they do not have powerful ways of participating.

Complimenting

I personally love it when my efforts are recognized. Based on the looks on the faces of the students and teachers I work with, they do, too. Once, a student has shared their work, a second student has analyzed and described their process then, a third student is assigned the role of complimenting. The third student can choose to compliment anyone they like. I have begun to ban the word “like” and ask students to use words like appreciate and applaud. For example, “I appreciate the way you labeled your work. It helped me understand the problem better. or I applaud you for explaining Ben’s: strategy so carefully.” Creating a living anchor chart that students can reference when complimenting their classmates’ efforts can be very useful. Complimenting one another builds trust, builds confidence, builds community.

**I highly advise you to focus on complimenting one another’s work versus publicly questioning one another unless you have done extensive community building and practice on how to phrase a question and respond politely. Many students’ questions can across sounding accusatory and may cause others to feel defensive and shut down.

Research

Research on student-to-student interaction goes as far back as Jean Piaget in the 1930’s. According to Piaget’s approach, adult–child interaction is less effective in promoting learning because the adult’s natural authority leads to asymmetry that renders the child a more passive recipient of knowledge and instruction (Piaget, 1932).
Doise and Mugny (1984) have argued that peer interaction is beneficial because it generates sociocognitive conflict (akin to cognitive conflict) that prompts children to appreciate and consider another child’s different
perspective and, in turn, develop by adjusting their understanding of a situation accordingly.
The positive sign indicates that children assigned to peer interaction conditions evidenced greater learning than those assigned to other conditions (Tenenbaum, et al, 2020).

Tenenbaum, H.R., Winstone, N.E., Leman, P.J., and Avery, R.E. (2020). How effective is peer interaction in facilitating learning? a meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 112, No. 7, 1303–1319. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000436