NOT a grammar post – this one’s about online participation!

The one thing I am struggling with at the moment, in the middle of all the online learning, is classroom management and student participation. I realise that we are now over a year into the world of Zoom teaching, and in truth this is something I have noticed before now, but it feels like things are getting worse. My students have all slipped into “The Passive Zone”….

Which is to say that they now all wait to be asked direct questions and nobody volunteers anything.

This makes discussions somewhat stilted and they don’t tend to go anywhere particularly, the other day (and the prompt for this), I asked a question and nobody said anything at all. My instinct as a curmudgeon is to sit there in silence with them to wait it out (and make the point) and use the silence as a weapon to see who blinks first, but I didn’t actually do that. I just moved them onto the next thing.

So, in thinking about what the causes of all this reticence might be, I find the medium itself does lend to this. I have noticed that in Portugal, where I am, people do a thing I think of as circular speaking. It’s a bit like the circular breathing technique you need to play the didgeridoo, only at a conversational level. From the outside it looks like two people having an argument and both speaking at the same time without listening, but in fact they are both listening and processing each other, but they just don’t stop talking in the meantime. Zoom, of course, does not allow for that. It can only really handle one person speaking at a time, and very often barely that. Real conversation is full of overlap and interruption, recasts and clarification, and Zoom doesn’t seem to allow for that. Turn-taking becomes much more formulaic and much more like the proverbial tennis match with the conversation as a ball batted back and forth between participants.

It might also be that time of year. We are just coming off our Easter break and many students didn’t get as much of a break as usual because they missed classes earlier in the year due to lockdown restrictions. Perhaps they are all just knackered. many of my students have exams coming up in June and as the enormity of that hits, priorities shift.

I might also blame mainstream education online. Again, it is unfair to paint everyone the same colour here as I’m sure many teachers are, like me, trying to find the best way forwards. But…… from talking to my students and observing my kids in class online, it does seem like a lot of online education has become a call and response, question and answer type situation. Perhaps guiding the students through the material would be a better word than “education”. Students systemised into these behaviours may find it difficult to break out of the patterns in other classes. Skinner would be proud.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

So – solutions? Anyone got any? Anyone else managing the same issue more effectively than me?

What I’ve tried so far:

Breakout Rooms: The conversation does improve (I notice) when students are in pairs or threes in breakout rooms. Anymore than that seems to start becoming unwieldy again. Plus this is an obvious break from the “teacher led” main room and it seems students feel more able to say what they want and more thrown back on their own resources. That said, one student told me about their “last year teacher” who left them in breakout rooms chatting for half an hour at a time – for me a step too far! There have also apparently been complaints about this sort of thing, presumably from parents of younger students who don’t see the value (which I would agree with). This though, also tends to rely on small grouyp dynamics and while you may have a group that get on “professionally”, they might not have a lot to say to each other. One group will be going all guns blazing and not got past discussion point two, while the next group down will have “Finished teacher., which is usually code for “we took turns to say our answers to each other and then stopped”.

Problem based tasks / Mysteries: This has been my most successful task yet, but equally, I have yet to replicate it. It was a 20 questions mystery about a man on a train who murders a lady and is arrested and let go by the police. Readers who remember paper may know it from Mario Rinvolucri’s 1984 “Grammar Games”. My class found this deeply engaging and what was meant to be a short(ish) lead-in to passive structures ended up being most of the lesson. I like the focus of problem-based teaching in general, and I like the way that students really have to think and discuss together to find a solution, but being somewhat restricted by a grammar-based syllabus, I find it difficult to find problem-based tasks for specific language areas, because of course, that’s not the way langauge works!

Variety: Kahoot & Baamboozle are good ways of changing the vibe in the lesson and I do use these relatively regularly, but these are still quite teacher-led and don’t really promote interaction between students. It occurs to me as I write this that I could of course share the link for a Baamboozle grid with the class and give them screen control in small groups of four (two teams of two), per breakout room. I shall try that.

Free Talk – which is something I remember from my own school days and learning GCSE French. Usually at the end of the lesson our teacher, who had presumably run out of lesson plan, would give us five minutes free talk. It inevitably ended up being done not in French, but in English. I sometimes offer this to my class as a beginning to the lesson, while we are waiting for latecomers, especially as I have students who know each other in real life, but who don’t see each other due to the restrictions. They will do it anyway, so I might as well make it official!

Not Worrying About It – which is what I do most of the time, except of course that even when I don’t worry about it, I do….. It is easy enough to say “this is just the way things are right now” and you can only do so much. My aim for pretty much every lesson is that the students get something positive out of the experience – linguistically and emotionally – because God knows we all need to take it a little bit easy on ourselves and not worry so much.

But still. Any advice is appreciated!

Main picture credit: Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash