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Joy in Cacophony

Laura Russell
One useful technique I often use in my classes is small discussion groups because there are such benefits to this technique. When students explore a question or topic with just two or three of their peers, they can try out their ideas in front of a smaller and less intimidating audience. They can also hear what their peers are thinking, which can help clarify about a confusing term or concept for everyone. In addition, as students process a question together, they can build on each other’s thinking to arrive at an even more sophisticated understanding of the question. As the teacher, I can circulate to each group and hear their “thinking aloud,” and I can push or redirect them to deepen their understanding. This strategy also gives me feedback about whether the lesson is hitting its mark with the students or whether I need to back track, review, or revise the lesson to hit that “sweet spot” of learning for each student. 

When we transitioned to remote learning this spring, my history department colleagues and I really puzzled over how to re-imagine this kind of learning experience for our students. Would we have to sacrifice this form of teaching and learning? Happily, the answer was no. After several conversations, trial and error, and patient support from our IT staff, we learned how to use breakout rooms in Google Meet. We could now be present in each room simultaneously, and by clicking a few buttons and putting on our headphones, we could listen to what students were saying in each group, also simultaneously. At first we thought we would be too overwhelmed by the cacophony of students speaking all at once - how would we be able to understand anything that they were saying? And with the first couple of classes, I was ready to drop the whole idea. But, by the third class I discovered that the cacophony became a wonderful collage of voices. With the breakout rooms, I could never see all of my students at once, but because I know my students so well, I was quickly able to identify them by their voices. If I wanted to ask a question but not disturb the flow of their conversation, I could type it into the chat box, and they could look at it and type back when it was convenient. If I felt they needed to be a bit more focused, I could unmute my mic for just that breakout room and redirect them with the authority of my voice. (I only had to do that once!) What I found, and my colleagues have mentioned this, too, is that our students’ conversations and their focus were just as thoughtful and productive, sometimes even more so, as when we are in class. So, while there are many frustrations about not seeing and interacting with my students in person, I am finding joy in their cacophony.
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