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Treading Water During Online Conversations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Five years ago, I made a poster with James Britton’s famous words: “reading and writing float along a sea of talk.” I whole-heartedly believe this statement as a reader, writer, and teacher. Today, I wish I could talk with him—share the difficulties my students and I face to simply have a conversation. I am trying my best to foster meaningful conversations when masks physically silence my students’ voices and technology digitally mutes them. I never realized how much of my writing-reading workshop hinged on students being together and talking with one another until now.

Struggling to move beyond what was and what is drives me to continually re-see how I can best implement breakout rooms and discussion boards. Although Teams and Canvas cannot come close to the authentic and immediate conversations that occurred in my brick and mortar classroom, I am grateful to have the technology.

What I share below are some of the Band-Aids I am experimenting with for student-teacher conferences and student conversations.

Student-Teacher Conferences: Since I cannot pull up a stool and chat with a student or table group, I started weekly small-group Teams conferences based on our hybrid schedule. I am able to meet with all students once per week to discuss their books and/or writing pieces. It’s not ideal (I previously engaged in many more conversations throughout a class period and week), but I have to re-imagine my student-teacher conferences. I invite online students to lower the volume and I use headphones so as to not disturb the students physically in the room; however, I am still available to answer questions for all students. Below is a chart, showing how I separated my conference groups by hybrid 1, online only, and hybrid 2 students. We meet during workshop time. For some meetings, I break students into smaller groups and assign them different times to meet with me.

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Meet with 4-6 online only studentsHybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams
Hybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams

Table-Group Breakout Rooms and Discussion Boards: Students selected the “table groups” they wanted to work with through a Forms, regardless of their schedule: hybrid 1, hybrid 2, and online only. The first time we tried this breakout room, students in school experienced terrible audio feedback and echoing. To remedy this problem, students in school used headphones or group members sat in nearby desks, so only one person in our physical classroom needed to join the Teams call. Even so, the way the breakout rooms work is ongoing and ever-changing as I learn more about my students and my students get to know one another.

For example, each period is set up a little differently. In 2nd and 5th period, students across the different schedules meet digitally. In 4th period, my students and I worked to regroup students by schedule, so hybrid 1 students work together, hybrid 2 students work together, and the online only students are interspersed throughout. This is helping them stay more focused in our brick and mortar classroom. 7th period is a combination of what I mentioned above. I needed to be flexible in order to meet everyone’s needs. Particularly for a group of three students who work really well together. They all have a different schedule, but they meet to work in Teams throughout the week.

Additional Breakout Rooms: In addition to the Wednesday “table group” breakout rooms, students, who are physically in school, turn and talk from their desks while remaining 6 feet apart. Online students join breakout rooms.

Going into this year, I knew online and hybrid learning would challenge the routines of my brick and mortar writing-reading workshop. Re-thinking conferences and group work is a continual focus of mine. I miss the roar of my students’ voices coming to life after reading their independent reading books or completing a quick write. My students miss the opportunity to easily and naturally chat with peers and friends. Through it all, I remind myself to stay present, breathe often, tinker with technology, and trust that my students’ voices will float whether online or in person.

I would love to hear how you are conferring with students and creating opportunities for students to talk and collaborate.