Shhhh…don’t tell teacher! (backchannelchat.com)

As many of you know, I’ve been exploring the idea of “backchannel chat” in my senior English class.  A backchannel is a conversation that happens concurrently with whatever is going on in the class but is not officially part of the lesson – much like passing notes in elementary school.  I’ve implemented it as part of my ongoing quest to find new ways to engage introverted students in the class conversation.  At first, I marketed it to the students as an add-on – totally optional with no teacher guidance.  Nobody took the bait.  Oh, sure, they all posted “hi’s” and “yo dawg’s” but nothing of substance.  Then I began posting focus questions that pertained to the lesson.  For example, when discussing Japanese internment, one backchannel chat question was “What is it that enables one group of human beings to treat another group as though they were subhuman creatures?”; for the conflict in Kashmir, “How does cuisine reflect culture? Give a specific example.”; for South African Apartheid, “Why do you think music and art have such a powerful effect on people’s attitudes about injustice and discrimination?”  Suddenly, the kids began having really substantive discussions with each other – often disagreeing and then finding common ground.  I love that they’re exploring and creating avenues of knowledge that are of their own making.  Of course, it means that I’m not necessarily the star of the show in my class, which is a really different teaching mindset.  “Guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage,” right?  But empowering the kids to be creators of content has given even my most reticent students the opportunity to lift their “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (Walt Whitman)

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