Want to Have a High-Quality Discussion On-line?

Keep These Principles in Mind

“Trust  is earned in the smallest of moments. It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection” – Brene Brown

Learning is about relationships.

Research on effective teaching and learning and common sense indicates that strong personal relationships with students and the components of social emotional learning are critical for deep learning. Teaching and learning is a partnership, and it is our job to create classrooms that are based on equity, mutual respect, collaboration, and trust. Only then will students feel comfortable to take risks, use their authentic voices to ask questions and let themselves be vulnerable. We also know that creating school and classroom culture must begin the very first day of school. When remote learning becomes the new normal, the task of creating deep learning experiences for students becomes more challenging. How do we create a classroom culture and engaging learning experiences online?

My students  have shared with me that in order to get excited about on-line learning they need to feel engaged  with the material, and they need to exercise their voice. “I do not like just having to do homework problems and sending in my answers- that is so boring,” one student told me. “Learning by myself is really hard and lonely.” “I miss being connected to my classmates and friends,” one sophomore told me. “I like having discussions as I can see other peoples’ faces and hear from other students- this is more interesting and makes learning easier for me,” another 10th grader mentioned.

This spring I have been experimenting with how to have high quality Harkness discussions in a virtual environment. Some discussions have been great successes, and  others can be kindly described as “memorable failures. While the  format of and the challenges of running  a Harkness discussion on-line are slightly different, here are some suggestions that may be helpful for  all types of on-line discussions, not only for Harkness.

1) Limit the size of the google meet or zoom discussion to eight  people.

Keep it small to begin with! That way everyone has a chance to talk

2) First, joint  create norms with  the students  for the discussion

 Here is an example of the  norms that my students developed for our on-line  Harkness discussions  this spring

·   Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio. (Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk). We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting.)

·   If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.

·   Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.

·   Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.

·   If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.

·   Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a  note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.

·   Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!

·   Remember to monitor your airtime, you can still invite others to  speak

One of my students developed her additional  norms for our discussions:

·   The Golden Rule

               Treat others how you want to be treated. 

·   The “Hidden Value” Rule

               Look for the good in everyone. You may not see it immediately, but I promise, it’s there. Believe that everyone provides some kind of value, even if it’s not abundantly clear on the surface. Trust that the person standing in front of you has redeeming qualities that, if you knew more about them, would inspire, delight and enchant you. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

·   The “Everyone Is Special” Rule

               Recognize that everyone comes from a different place, and they all bring vast amounts of experience and wisdom with them. Everyone knows something you don’t know. Everyone is capable of doing and being someone completely different from you and that is a worthwhile thing to respect. 

3) Post these norms on your google classroom and have students read and agree to them before each discussion.

After a few  discussions, ask the students, “Do we need to make any changes to this list? If so, what?” Be open to their contributions.

4) Be clear about the goal for your discussion.

On-line discussion can provide added value for students  if they are encouraged to use their voices to engage in learning,  wrestle with problems, ask questions, learn from one another and/or gain new perspectives on  classroom material. On-line discussions should not be dominated by the teacher or an opportunity delivering information or for “lecture”.

5) Prepare a prep sheet for students to fill in, print out and bring to the discussion. 

If you are familiar with how to prepare for a Harkness discussion, you know how to construct these prep sheets. If not here  are some ideas you might look at You can shape the discussion by how you decide the construct the prep sheet.

6) Begin with an icebreaker activity, preferable chosen and run by a student

 By making personal connections with students and creating an atmosphere of  collaboration and  trust, we  let  students  know that we care about them and what they say is important. As Brene Brown says, we can show our students that we care about them  “through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.” Take the time to  check in with students and begin by an activity which builds community.  Here are a few ideas.   

7) Plan ahead as to how you will open the discussion. What is the first question you will ask the students?   Proceed from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract. Students gain confidence as they begin to find their voices. One question on many Harkness prep sheets is “What clarifying questions do you have about this reading?” They can read these off of their prep sheets to begin.

8) Keep your eye on the clock! On-line conversations move more slowly and often take longer. Having everyone join the conversation, making sure  the internet  and audio is working and troubleshooting problems takes additional  time. If you reserve one hour for your on-line discussion, you may get 50 minutes of talking time.

9) Always debrief the dynamics of the conversation! Ask students to reflect on what they learned during the conversation and what, if any added value the discussion held for them and their learning. I ask the students to unmute while we all talk during the debriefing. I always ask:

               What is your big takeaway from today’s discussion? (What did I learn?)

               What went well in our discussion went today?

               What can we do better as a group next time?

               How did  I do in my role as facilitator today?

What suggestions can you give me to improve?

 NOTE: Students tend to think they have done a great job. Listen to their self- evaluation before you offer your feedback  to the group. You can also ask them to respond in a written self-evaluation that you  ask them to return, but  debriefing all together builds community, collaboration and trust.

10)  Monitor YOUR airtime. Again, a discussion is  not the time for lecture or providin vast quantities of additional information. Always keep in mind, “It is not MY discussion,   it is  THEIR discussion”

11) Be aware of  potential technical challenges-some of these can be anticipated and  some just appear! Here are the most common challenges I have encountered:

ChallengeStrategies to Address this  Challenge
Time lags slow the conversation while people unmute themselvesPrepare for this possibility  by addressing it beforehand and asking kids to be patient
 Encourage students to  use a hand signal when they want to talk next – this speeds up the conversation
Connections freeze upUse the chat box- you or another student can write  to the students whose screen is frozen. Tell them  ahead of time that if this happens they should quit and rejoin the meeting
People are not prepared for the discussion and do have their materials in front of themBe clear AHEAD OF TIME that students need to be prepared-this is also much easier to keep track of if there are fewer students in the discussion. Ask them to hold up their papers for you to see if they have done the prep work you have asked for.
 At the beginning of the discussion, ask if everyone is prepared and invite those  who may not be prepared to be honest if they are not (we are all doing the best we can, right?)  Invite them to participate to the level that they can. Do not chastise individuals  publicly in front of others
People not speaking up and/or there are long moments of silenceRephrase the question to make it simpler and easier to answer (usually this happens if a question is too abstract or high level for that point in the discussion) Return to the TEXT and ask a  lower level, more concrete question
 “Stop and Write” replaces the “Turn and Talk”. Ask students to take  one moment to think about the question and write about it on a sheet of paper- then ask them to read out their  responses
 Use  the chat function.  Ask students to THINK for one minute and WRITE their responses in the chat. Have students read these aloud and ask for comments and reactions. Students enjoy this  variant.
 Reach out and ask one student  who you think might have the courage to answer the question, ie., “Marcus, what are your thoughts on this topic?”

 Learning how to facilitate virtual conversations grounded in inquiry, mutual respect, collaboration and trust takes practice and patience! We are all still learning how to do this work. Giving students the opportunity to  design and engage in these discussions enables young people to express themselves, to be heard, to feel valued and to engage in social connection and deep learning.

“We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious and to explore”- Brene Brown 

I am interested in your reactions, ideas and thoughts! Send them  and your good  ideas for on-line discussions to  me at katherinewcadwell@gmail.com or kcadwell@huusd.org

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