Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Trying Out a Backchannel In Fifth Grade

An alternate title of this post could be…When Backchanneling Goes Horribly Wrong.

After reading Cathy Mere’s post with her first graders, I knew I had to try and use a backchannel in my fifth grade classroom. I decided that the place it made the most sense to start with was during read aloud in my homeroom. To prepare I:

Created a room.
Picked a length of time the room would exist.

And that’s it!

During read aloud I gave each student a device. (FYI -for this lesson, we had enough iPads to have each child have one. The iPads worked great. )

Once they typed in the room URL (which you will have once you create the room), we talked about purpose.

What was the goal in allowing them to essentially text while I read? We talked about predictions, questions, summarizing, etc. I explained that their comments would be linked with their name, that I would be reading each one when I was done (you can access a transcript), and that I would be giving them a participation grade.

For the next twenty minutes, I read. They were quiet, focused, and worked to listen and comment at the same time. Once I was done and closed the book, some asked if they could make a prediction and, of course, I said yes.

Almost immediately kids began ratting each other out – telling me that someone just wrote “lol” the whole time, someone was fighting with another in the backchannel, someone spoiled the book, etc. We took a breath, I reminded them that I would be reading the entire thread, they weren’t there to control each other, and we moved on.

Later, after they headed to library, I sat down with a class list and read through the entire thread. Conservatively, I would say there were upwards of 400 comments in twenty minutes from around twenty kids. WOW. I began to code the comments on my class list. If you made a comment that contributed positively to the conversation, you got a plus, if you made a comment but it was neutral like – yes, no, or someone’s name – I gave you a check. If you just wanted to comment, but really wasted space (arguing, off topic, emoticons – which I had said not to use), I gave you a minus. With these codes in mind, I read each and every comment.

What I found was fascinating. Five kids commented more than the entire class combined. They often posted, “Stop wasting space and commenting for no reason” when the person they were talking to had done a far better job commenting than they had. They weren’t being reflective, they were swept away with the new concept and being a bit overzealous.

When I was all done, those five kids had clearly misused the backchannel. They had each commented around 35-40 times with only 1-3 comments that contributed to our growth or conversation. We had gone over directions, but in the excitement to try something new, they forgot. So, we regrouped and tried it again.

They returned from library and I shared my findings. I went over our directions again. I handed out iPads, but those five had to sit this one out. (They will be allowed to use them in the future, but we needed a breather and a reminder of what the purpose was of this lesson.)

The second backchannel was amazing. We did essentially the same activity as the time before – twenty minute read aloud on our current book (The False Prince). There was a lot going on in today’s reading. I loved watching students gasp at surprising moments and look down to type. The best part, however, was when I read the transcript.

A sample of the comments from the second attempt.

When the students headed to band, I moved to my computer. What I found fascinated me. I’ve been trying over and over to get everyone to participate in class discussions. I have many dominate voices this year and several quiet students who don’t tend to speak up. In the backchannel, they did. Even better, I saw students building on comments from others. One boy walked in late from speech and grabbed an iPad. His first comment was, “Hey guys, what did I miss?” and someone immediately summarized it for him. SO COOL!

I’m beyond excited that I tried this today. While the first attempt was a flop – there were some great comments, but overall they were lackluster. The second attempt was unreal. The comments were focused, there were amazing predictions, great conversations, and fabulous questions. I will absolutely be doing this again tomorrow and every day forward.