In the past, I’ve talked a lot about building a classroom library from scratch. If you don’t have a classroom library, get one! The benefit to your students as readers is simply unparalleled. But how can you start the year off right to maximize student use and enjoyment of your library and get all of your kids reading? Let’s talk about a variety of ways to hook students on reading right off the bat.
Back-to-School is always a whirlwind of get-to-know-yous, sharing expectations, and creating classroom culture. Getting kids reading and using your library should be included on your very first day of class to make reading a clear part of your classroom culture! On Day One of class…
If not on day one, then definitely by day two, every student in your room should have a reading book from your library. Getting books in kids’ hands right away immediately builds a culture and expectation of reading in your classroom. Reading is important, and it’s what we do here, so we’re diving into it right away. No need to wait for your class’ first checkout in the school library- you’ve got books all ready to go, because reading is just that important.
Bonus points if you give students 10 or 15 minutes of class to read it- this doubles as casual observation time for you to start identifying kids who might be struggling readers or “fake” readers.
But how do you hook kids right away with books they’ll love? Let’s explore how you get each of your new students connected with right-fit books from your classroom library.
Donalynn Miller talks in The Book Whisperer about giving a reading interest inventory on the first day of school to every student. She then uses the inventory to stay after on that first day and individually select a book that each and every student might like, based on their inventory. Not only is each student immediately connected with a book they might click with, it shows right away that she cares about her students and their reading lives enough to take the time for each of them. Powerful stuff!
If Miller’s method isn’t a viable option for you, it is still more than worthwhile to give your students an interest inventory, for several reasons. One, it gets kids thinking about themselves as readers, what interests they have, and what they know about their own reading preferences. Two, you can use the data you collect to shore up areas of your class library that students may be more into this year. (For my group of kids this year, it was horror and thrillers- not something last year’s group read a ton of.) Three, an inventory gets students talking to each other about their preferences and reading lives- circulate and eavesdrop while they’re working, and you can learn a lot about your students right off the bat. I would have students complete the inventory before you introduce them to your classroom library so they’ve already activated their thinking about reading preferences.
There are hundreds of pre-made reading interest inventories out there for all grade levels, so this is one less first-day activity you’ll need to sweat. Here are a few great (free!) options for every grade:
Once students have started thinking through their reading preferences, introduce them to some high-interest options from your classroom library with a basket pass. Even if you don’t use book baskets in your library, if you can get your hands on enough book-holding containers to have one for each group, you’re all set for this activity! Students can start their “Books I Want to Read” list for the year with some high-interest titles straight from your library shelves.
A similar activity to the basket pass is book “speed-dating,” where you start with one book per student and the students (or the books!) rotate once every two minutes or so! You can set this up all sorts of ways and get fun and creative with it; an idea is to require students to read each book for the whole two minutes, which forces them to really try it out and see if it’s a good fit! Again, students should record titles of interest on a “Books I Want to Read” list.
I’ll go more into detail about this super-fun bookish game in the future, but you can easily get setup with the free game kit from the makers of Bring Your Own Book to play with students on the first few days of class (Note: An email is required to access). Best described as “Apples to Apples” or “Cards Against Humanity” meets reading, students are given a prompt (“Find a line that could be straight from a teenager’s diary”) and have to find a line in the book they’re holding that fits that description. There’s a rotating judge for each round just like CoH and A-to-A who picks the best or funniest answer as the winner. You can keep points if you like, but this one is fun enough that students don’t tend to get too concerned with winning or losing. I like to combine this with the Basket Pass activity- they get a few minutes to peruse the basket, play a round or two of BYOB, then pass the basket and repeat. A super engaging way to get middle and high school students skimming possible reads- be sure to remind students to keep their answers school-appropriate, though!
Use bulletin board or wall space near your library to advertise some of the high-interest texts on offer to students. Pinterest is full of fantastic ideas here, and you can even include students from the year before by having them leave their recommendations behind for future students. Early in the year I like to advertise first books of series, books with Netflix adaptations they may have watched over the summer, and books from a variety of genres. You can even make the books part of the display with specialty-crafted bookmarks that advertise your favorites or popular titles.
Once you’ve done some work in getting students thinking about their reading interest and maybe perusing some selections from your collection, it’s almost time to set them loose in your library. First, though, it is key to clearly state your expectations for library use, including procedures for check out and check in of books, when students can browse, how to re-shelve books, whether books can be taken home, and how books are to be treated. I am upfront with my students about the fact that I bought all of these books with my own money. They are always stunned, given the size of my library, but this creates another great opportunity to explain to students how much I value reading and their lives as readers, and how much I love books myself. To that end, I also make clear that I made this investment because I want every student to have a rich reading life, and that means I need their help in making sure that books stay present and accounted for and in good shape so we can all benefit from this library.
Then, once my spiel about rules and procedures is done, I let small groups of students browse a few at a time, with the expectation that everyone is required to check out something. This is the first day of class, so it could be anywhere from 3-5 more days until we’ll hit the school library for the first time. Some students could have finished a whole book in that time! Start early, read often! I make myself available to recommend books to students and record initial book checkouts on my checkout log.
Setting your expectations and creating a culture of reading from Day One of the school year can go a long way in keeping your students reading for the whole school year. The sooner you put books in your kids’ hands, the more you communicate the message that reading is what we do here, and the more you’ll get students to buy into reading. Next week I’ll explore some ways to keep students hooked on reading all year long, to make sure students are challenging themselves, and to avoid fake reading and book burnout. Stay tuned!
One of my favorite school experiences was when my 8th-grade teacher encouraged us to create our own blogs on Xanga, an early-2000’s service that sadly went the way of Myspace- still around, but no longer relevant. I loved the experience because the creativity and the freedom to post about things that mattered to me were just fun.
Hoping to recreate that experience and engage students in multimedia-inclusive writing, I scoured the internet for a student-friendly blogging service. I wanted the features available from traditional blogging platforms, including posting and commenting; however, the lack of adult oversight inherent in having students create independent accounts for commonly-used sites such as WordPress or Blogger left me wary. I wanted open communication between my students, but I needed to be able to moderate content. I also wanted to easily access students’ blogs in one place. A further challenge was to avoid platforms students might find childish, as middle schoolers (especially 8th-graders) can be sensitive to content that feels condescending.
Months after I began searching I randomly stumbled upon EduBlogs, which turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more.
EduBlogs, a WordPress subsidiary, operates like any typical blogging service- in fact, the interface is pretty identical to WordPress, creating an authentic experience for students. The skills they learn by creating a blog through EduBlogs are directly transferable to WordPress and similar sites. Additionally, the site has that more ‘adult’ look I wanted for my students.
A side-by-side comparison of WordPress user interface (left) and EduBlogs user interface (right)
EduBlogs offers me all the control and moderation I’d been looking for. With a free account, I’m able to moderate my students’ comments on each other’s posts. The free account does not allow me to moderate the actual posts before they go up, but that’s irrelevant- I have total access to student blogs and can edit or delete any of their posts with ease, essential when working with impulsive, emotional middle schoolers.
Students have creative freedom in setting up their blogs, including changes to theme, background photos, text colors, etc. Each blog becomes a reflection of the student, and students love making their blog their own space. This may lead to some… unconventional design choices, but while we talk together about the importance of presentation, these blogs are not meant to be professional and stuffy- I want my students to feel comfortable here. This is their space.
Just a few of my students’ customized blogs.
I can view all student posts in chronological order from my dashboard, making it easy to click through posts without having to open each student’s individual blog. In the same window I’m also able to view other students’ comments. I can even leave private comments only visible to the author, making feedback a breeze. Massive time-saver!
You can embed all sorts of media into posts, including photos, YouTube videos, and even Spotify playlists! Pretty much any media that you can grab a direct link to can be embedded. (Note: Using actual embed HTML code is a premium feature- a bit limiting, but not something my students and I have missed terribly). I try to model incorporating different types of media for my students in my own blog posts.
EduBlogs offers support and instructions to optionally transfer ownership of student blogs to parents or students at the end of the school year. They even provide an informational letter you can send home to parents to help them decide if keeping the blog is something they want for their student. No more months of work down the drain when the school year ends!
While I love EduBlogs’ authenticity, less-comfortable tech users may struggle to adapt to all of the features in the user interface. I am an experienced blogger and have used WordPress for years, so it was a seamless transition for me; I knew how to help students from day one. Someone less familiar with the setup of traditional blogging platforms may want to spend some time learning the site before using it with students. However, EduBlogs offers lots of useful videos, PDFs, forums, and instant chat to support teachers as they learn to navigate the site.
A major missing feature I hope to see integrated in the future is account compatibility with either Google or Clever. I have found it simplest at this point to manually create my students’ accounts, but this is obviously time-consuming. You can have students create their own blog accounts and then join your class, but it’s not a perfect process and may end up giving students access to a separate blog that you can’t moderate. For my students, who are prone to interpersonal drama and for whom cyberbullying is a persistent issue, this wasn’t an acceptable tradeoff for any time savings.
This year, I have used EduBlogs to have my students do book reviews and podcast reviews. Apart from that, students are required to post something on their blog once a week. I provide suggested prompts each week that are broad and high-interest, but students are not obligated to use these (though most do).
Next year, I want to expand my use to include more assignments such as reading responses, quick writes, etc. that are traditionally done in student notebooks or turned in directly to the teacher. I hope to encourage a more collaborative learning community where dialogue occurs between a student and their classmates, not just the student and me.
The end of the year is upon us, and it can be a slow, slow crawl to the finish line. Grades are due and kids are checked out and admin has sent out yet another ‘friendly reminder’ about keeping kids learning until the last day. Fortunately, there are plenty of engaging, low-key, low-prep activities to do with your ELA students in the last days of the school year. Not only will they keep your kids productive, you’ll even get a head start for next year! Great, right?
You can do some of these activities as stations, create a hyperdoc for students to move at their own pace, or just have the whole class work through one at a time.
Take some time to have students transfer files that they may wish to keep from the school year to a personal email with cloud storage, such as Gmail. This is especially important if your students are in 8th or 12th grade, or if they won’t be returning the following school year. If you use EduBlogs, you can follow their handy directions to transfer ownership of your class’ blogs to students or their parents, and some other platforms you use might offer similar transfer options.
Hopefully, by this point in the year each of your students has read at least one book. Hopefully. Turn that reading experience into motivation for next year’s readers by asking each of your students to review their favorite book of the year. You can use bookmark book reviews and have students leave them sticking out of the reviewed book, or do half-sheet or quarter-sheet reviews an use them to create a bulletin board display for next year. Here are some ready-to-go templates!
In a similar vain to book reviews, create a ready-to-go bulletin board display for next year by having your students fill out an index card or one of the templates below with their best piece of writing advice. Remind your students that they’ve learned a lot this year, and this is a chance for them to share some of the ideas that were most helpful to them with future students. Get a ready-to-go kit over at my co-store, Two Bs in a Pod! (And, check out our end-of-the-year writing activity bundle!)
Have students put together a writing portfolio or general ELA portfolio with their top three or four pieces of work from the whole school year. Then, use Flipgrid or video recording software to have students reflect on why each of these pieces represent their best work, or why they are most proud of these pieces. Encourage students to consider picking pieces that show their growth over time. Students can put together their portfolios digitally using Google Slides, Google Sites, EduBlogs, or any presentation or website software. Ask students to share their portfolios with parents or family members at home! This activity is great because students can put as much or as little work as they want into their portfolios and reflections depending on the time available and your expectations. Below are tons of great options listed with grade level, price, and paper or digital format (as of this post).
Don’t have the time (or energy!) for students to put together a whole portfolio? Ask students to pick their very best piece of writing from the year (or an excerpt, if it’s a long piece), and do an author share celebration. Each student shares their piece orally with the class (or in small groups), and you could bring in some cheap cookies and juice pouches to make it feel like a real party. Between students selecting, polishing, and rehearsing pieces before they present, this could easily take you 2-3 class periods.
Doing some year-in-review activities can be a great way to get students reflecting on all the positive and interesting things that happened during the school year. Here are some ready-to-go templates for one-page reflections and memory books.
Have students make a summer bucket list of all the things they want to do over the break. They can create their lists either digitally (consider Canva or another graphic design software) or paper-pencil. Either way, encourage students to get creative and use color! You can get 3 free summer bucket list templates included with Two Bs’ end-of-the-year writing activity bundle (link below)! Here’s some inspiration and some additional templates.
Give your students an anonymous end-of-the-year survey about their experience in your class. It can be nerve-wrackingly vulnerable to open yourself up to this sort of feedback from students, but as teachers we know that feedback is essential to improvement for us as well as our students. Here is a copy of my end-of-year Google Forms survey to get feedback from my 8th-graders about their ELA experience, and some other pre-made surveys for elementary, middle, and high school.
Have students spend some time writing thank you cards to teachers, staff, and parents who have had a positive impact on them this school year. It may be useful to do a quick mini-lesson with a mentor text or two on how to write a great thank-you card, which is an important life skill students of any age can take with them when they leave your class. After the mini-lesson, set out some construction paper or cardstock, markers and coloring utensils, any other crafty materials you’re itching to get rid of at the end of the year, and set students loose. Here are links to some ideas and mentor texts for an easy lesson, as well as some printable thank-you cards if your students aren’t feeling particularly artsy.
Find some picture books (you can check a bunch out from your local library for a few days!), poetry books, or high-interest non-fiction expository texts such as fact or world record books. Have students find a partner and a comfy place to sit and enjoy some buddy reading. Students can take turns reading aloud to each other and discussing the text. You might think older secondary students would find this a bit childish, but it’s so rare that they get the opportunity to enjoy picture books or read with a friend. Pick some high-interest titles (suggestions below!) and your kids will have a blast. For added fun, encourage students to try doing character voices as they read!
Speaking of books, have your students make some summer reading lists! Students over 13 can use Goodreads to create a Want-to-Read list of interesting books they might like to enjoy over the summer, or you can have students use any of the neat reading list templates below to record titles of interest. Where will they find these possible beach reads, you ask? Have students chat as they work and recommend books to each other, but give your students access to some lists of great books for their age group by perusing some book blogs. Below are links to book blog posts about great summer reads for every age group! Bonus points- spend a few minutes making sure students know how to access and use their local library, including how to sign up for a library card.
Because sometimes, we just need a break from hearing our students talk, consider giving a listening station a try. This works best as a center rotation and definitely isn’t something I’d recommend trying for a whole class period, but if you pick some shorter, high-interest listening materials and include a short graphic organizer or doodle activity, students can learn that podcasts and videos can be fun and engaging! Below are listening options for every grade level and sheets for students to doodle or color as they listen.
Have your students play around with flash-fiction and write some six-word pieces. Students who are over 13 and okay to view potentially YA material can publish six-word memoirs at SixWordMemoirs.com, or you can create a gallery walk of students’ work. You can have students give six-word stories a try as well; I like to prompt students by giving them a genre to write in (fantasy) or a word they have to include (balloon). You can also have students do six-word summaries of popular books or movies; students love to write these and then have peers guess what the book or movie is. No matter which option you choose, flash pieces are a great way to get students thinking about (and having fun with) word choice and tone. You’ll want to make sure students have access to a thesaurus, and my best piece of writing advice is to write long and then revise short, and remember the power of punctuation. Students who finish early can illustrate their pieces and rewrite their work in larger letters with their best handwriting.
Have your students create some virtual magnetic poetry on Storybird! With thousands of gorgeous pieces of artwork to serve as inspiration, Storybird is accessible for every student from about second grade onward. If your students have not used Storybird before, you will want to build in an extra 10-15 minutes for them to explore and get familiar with the site, but it is not a hard one to pick up. Choose the “Poetry” option to create magnetic poetry. You can also have students turn their short fiction into picture books using the “Picture Books” option. There are also various writing challenges your students can participate in. If your students are burnt out on writing, they can read other students’ work both in the class and the larger community. Storybird is super school-friendly and protects students’ privacy, only publishing work with first names.
This game is super fun and I never get tired of playing with students. Bring Your Own Book is a free print-and-play game that requires players to, as the title says, bring a book to play with. Best described as Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity for readers, the way it works is students in small groups take turns being the judge and reading a prompt to the rest of the group such as “The title of a murder mystery novel” or “Famous last words,” and the rest of the group has two minutes (or less, or as much time as they want- your choice!) to find a line in their book that fits the prompt. When time is up, readers share the lines they found, and the judge awards the best or funniest answer the winner. You can keep score or just play for fun- it’s engaging enough that students are fine either way. The game is best for 6th-12th grade students, and you’ll want to give a friendly reminder beforehand about school-appropriate responses. You do need to provide an email to access the printable game and instructions, but you’ll get access to four additional game sets that are a little more nerdy in nature if you have students who might appreciate that sort of thing! You can easily take up most of a class period with this game!
Finally, review some ELA terms (and maybe even some fun trivia) with Kahoot, Gimkit, or Quizlet Live. There are tons of pre-made questions or study sets- all you have to do is sign up for a free teacher account and search for the topic you want. All three are free for teachers and students, and if you have a candy or prize box you’re trying to get rid of before the last day, this will definitely help! Some possible suggestions to search for include Disney movies/ characters, general trivia, summer trivia, sports, clean popular music (Kahoot will have music quizzes with actual video), American history trivia, etc. You can also look for more academic topics such as figurative language reviews, vocabulary quizzes, parts of speech or other grammar topics, quizzes on specific novels your class has read this year, etc. Plenty of options to choose from, easy to set up and run!
Happy almost-summer! Hang in there, everyone!
You’ve researched and made long lists (Part 1), collected scores of awesome books (Part 2), organized those books into a system (Part 3), set your library up to have the best chance of long-term success (Part 4), and worked to get your students invested and using it. But alas! Despite all of your best efforts (and sometimes even because of them!), things have gone wrong. Today we’ll talk about what to do when students lose your books, when your books lose interest, and when your books lose you.
Despite your efforts above, a student finally admits that his “little sister took it out of my backpack and hid it somewhere,” or worse, “dropped it in the toilet.” Another one bites the dust. What now?
Just let it go. Be sure to let the student know you are disappointed, and that it hurts you that the student was so careless with your property that you provided for all students to use. Maybe limit access for repeat offenders, or revoke that student’s checking-out privileges, temporarily or permanently.
My mom is militant about this with her third-graders. She uses a paper/pencil log, knows exactly which kids have books checked out, and will start cold-calling parents come mid-May if those books haven’t made their way back. If the book is lost or damaged, my mom asks them simply to replace the title. She makes it clear that it doesn’t even need to be a new copy, and gives them directions to the local used bookstore or explains buying used on Amazon. Sometimes, students will just bring her the cost of the book and have her order a replacement. Either way, because most paperback books can be found online for relatively cheap, it is a perfectly reasonable ask to have a student replace the book they lost. Be prepared for some possible pushback from parents, though- unfortunately, some do not believe it should be their problem that their child lost your materials. If you’re going to go this route, make sure your checkout records are impeccably kept so that you’ll have a leg to stand on.
If the student can’t (or won’t) pay for the book they lost or damaged, ask them to serve some classroom community service to make up for it. They could re-shelve books and organize the library, wipe out the book baskets, help you sticker and label new titles, or help with any other classroom tasks you might have. This provides a natural consequence for the student’s actions and will hopefully encourage them to be more careful with your materials in the future.
It can be incredibly frustrating to invest so much into your library to find that students simply aren’t using it. Before you lose your mind, take a breath and a step back, and observe your students’ habits. Are they not reading at all, or are they just not reading your books? If they’re not reading your books, are they checking out books from the school library or bringing them from home? No matter the answers to these questions, you have options forward.
Find out why. Talk to your students. Likely, they aren’t reading because they don’t want to, which means you may have to do some extra legwork to get interesting books into their hands and hook them on reading. Go back to Part 5 and retry some of the engagement activities. Regularly schedule time for First Chapter Fridays. Have your students do book talks of the books they have loved. Get your students making lists in their notebooks of books they’d like to read next. Show them inspiration for those lists from Goodread lists or lists compiled by book blogs that are appropriate for their age group. They can read a bunch of descriptions of possible books in a short amount of time and add them to their lists. Survey students to find out their individual interests and use what you learned to personally recommend a book for each student- there is nothing quite so powerful as “Hey, I saw this book and I thought of you!” to get students reading.
My first response to this is heck yeah, they’re reading! Who cares where the books are coming from as long as students are engaging with them! But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, so let’s zero in on some possible causes. Again, the best first step is always to go directly to the source and talk to your students. You may find that your checkout schedule isn’t lining up with their reading habits. It may be that you simply have a bunch of students fortunate enough to have parents who support their reading habits with trips to bookstores or the local library. But you may also find a wakeup call that the books in your library aren’t interesting or relevant enough for your current group of students.
If this is the case, you’ll need to decide how to respond. If your students seem to be accessing lots of texts from other places with relative ease, then I wouldn’t stress too much about it and go spend a boatload of money buying all new books. I would, however, survey them about their interests, get some recommendations of titles they’ve loved, and consider adding some of those texts to your library. Chances are, future students will enjoy them, too. You may also want to get your kids accessing some eBook services, especially if not all of them seem to be accessing titles from home. Another possible fix here is to take more time to highlight titles from your library. Students may just need more exposure to what’s available in your library, especially if they’re more used to checking out books from the school library- they may just feel more familiar and more comfortable with the setup. This problem may also be a sign that it’s time to purge older and less relevant titles from your library, and I’ll talk a bit more about that in the next section.
Running out of space for books is a bummer, as any bookworm will tell you, and the prospect of parting with books can be challenging, especially when you spent your own money on them. Here are some suggestions to consider when your shelves are full-to-bursting.
Humans have trillions of cells that make up our bodies. We’re born with a massive number of cells, and that number increases exponentially as we grow and develop. Along the way, we lose trillions of our cells as they die off due to injury or natural body processes. Even though we’ve lost all those cells, we’re still healthy, living organisms. S. Ranganathan, developer of the 5 Laws of Library Science back in the early 1930s, explains that libraries are growing organisms (just like young humans). While books are added and the size of the library increases over time, an essential part of maintaining the health of this “organism” is weeding the dead “cells.” Essentially, a healthy library must be actively maintained so that it contains only books that are an active part of the reading ecosystem- the ones that someone, anyone, is picking up to read. This careful weeding process is even more crucial when you’re short on space. If you can only afford a few shelves of space for your collection, it raises the pressure a bit to make sure those few shelves are packed full of solid, engaging reads for your students. Limited space means you’ll simply have to be incredibly picky about your collection. Release your inner #booksnob and let it flourish!
But how do you decide what stays and what goes? How can you be sure if books are actually worth keeping around, and what do you do with the ones that aren’t? There’s no set criteria, and you should always approach the process through the lens of your particular students and community because everyone has different needs. Organizations like the American Library Association can help provide guidelines to help you get started, though. Read more about purging books here!
Do you have a coworker BFF or a next-door neighbor who also has some classroom space? Consider working together to share your collections across both spaces. You may need to be more structured with appropriate checkout times and lay groundwork early to make sure students don’t treat checkout as a social call, but it could potentially be a way to double not only your space but your students’ book access! Just make sure that you and your coworker are on the same page with each other (and your students!) about book checkout expectations.
No extra space or coworker friends close by? Take a chill pill- or capsule! In fashion, a capsule collection is a tiny wardrobe of around 25-30ish carefully curated pieces of clothing with the idea that this is enough to build a whole wardrobe, but you can refresh it by rotating pieces in and out over seasons and as trends change. If you’re low on shelf space, approach your classroom library with the same mindset. While it’s helpful to have some sort of alternate space (a storage closet, cabinets, another non-student-accessible space in or near your classroom), it’s not strictly necessary. You can achieve the same effect by partnering with other teachers in or even outside of your school to trade collections periodically, or by actually exchanging books for trade-in credit at local used book stores (though this can get costly- be careful). If you’re fortunate enough to have space somewhere, even if it’s in a basement or closet at home, separate your full library into a static core and 4-6 different capsule collections that you can rotate in and out. The books that aren’t currently out for use can be boxed away, but I recommend trying to keep them at least somewhat accessible so you can pull specific titles for interested students. You can rotate books out as often as you want, but it’s always a good idea to pay attention not only to seasons but to various holidays or cultural awareness months so you can curate related titles!
Ultimately, as with anything in teaching, curating and maintaining an awesome classroom library takes practice and is an active learning experience. Trust in yourself and in your knowledge of your students- they are the most important beneficiaries of these books, after all! Let them play an active role in helping you develop and maintain your library by gathering their input on everything from book selections to class-wide expectations to favorite titles worthy of putting on display. Remember that there are ultimately no wrong answers here- it’s always about whatever is best for you and your students!
Don’t you just love it when your students really get engaged in a discussion? The ideas are bouncing off each other, students are respectfully disagreeing or asking follow-up questions, and the collaborative learning is just lighting up all over the place! If whole-class discussions are your jam, this Backchannel Chat #TechTuesday feature is for you!
Backchannel is an online chat room platform designed specifically for classroom use. The site delights in its simplicity and user-friendly design, and is easy enough to use that students of any age who can type their thoughts are good candidates for a Backchannel discussion. Students do not need to create an account to use Backchannel Chat- teachers simply post a link to the chat for students to access or give them the class code, then students enter their name and join the discussion. Adding a comment is as simple as typing into the box and hitting “Enter,” no more complicated than sending a text message or Snapchat. You can also download the Backchannel Chat mobile app for discussion on-the-go, perfect if your school uses tablets!
The teacher features, also easy to use and intuitive, are everything a teacher could ask for in facilitating discussion with students. Teachers have complete control over posts and can delete student comments with the click of a button, in case the built-in profanity filter still doesn’t catch an inappropriate student comment. Teachers can use the Chat Stats option to view the number of times individual students have participated in the discussion. The option to download a full transcript of the discussion makes it easy to search for key words or student names to evaluate student participation, and to keep a permanent record of the chat. Further exciting features for the $15 purchase price include the ability to embed Tweets, add student polls, have a private one-on-one chat with students, and add files to the chat for student viewing/ usage.
Backchannel is perfect for flipped or blended classroom instruction, but any teacher can find great advantage to using Backchannel with their students. Backchannel adds an element to student discussions that just can’t be matched with whole-class discussion in a face-to-face environment. For starters, every student is participating, either adding their own thoughts or responding to peers. Additionally, students can formulate responses at their own pace- there’s no time pressure and no being put on the spot. And speaking of being put on the spot, your quiet, introverted students will shine when they get to add their thinking to the discussion without the fear of having to speak up in front of peers.
Another great benefit to Backchannel is that it’s an on-demand chat space. This means that your students can participate at their leisure, and don’t all have to be present in the chat at once in order for good discussion to take place. This can make Backchannel a great option for homework- students login and participate in a discussion with peers whenever it’s convenient for them. I usually start Backchannel chats on Mondays, and ask students to participate between 5-7 times by Friday. Part of my rubric is that students cannot post all five comments at once, and that three of their five posts should be responses to peers. This ensures not only that students are actually discussing rather than responding, but it also ensures that they read the posts of their classmates and evaluate whether they agree or disagree with the points that were raised. The post-when-you-want format also really benefits learners with diverse needs, because they can take as long as they need to review texts or materials before contributing to a discussion. And students who are sick or absent? They can read back through the transcript to see what they missed while they were out. No more missed experiences!
Backchannel discussions also really encourage students to practice citing text evidence, as students simply need to copy and paste quotes from a text into their discussion posts. I’ve found the depth of discussion I get from my students on Backchannel actually vastly exceeded the quality of their verbal discussions in the past. Students were so much more engaged in responding to articles than they would have been if I had asked them to write a written response, even though they were practicing the exact same skills in addition to practicing good discussion.
You can create small groups of students with a different Backchannel chat room for each group, which would be perfect for book club discussions or writer’s workshop! You would still be able to see and moderate student posts, but students would be responsible for running the show, creating a collaborative and student-centered learning environment. Backchannel could also serve as a collaborative workspace for students working on group projects, especially if you wanted to create groups of students from different class periods or grade levels- a 6th- and 8th-grade class could work together on a Project-Based Learning unit and collaborate via Backchannel even if their classes don’t meet at the same time!
Backchannel Chat is free to use for teachers with the basic features intact, but the features available to premium users (multiple chat rooms at the same time, for instance) make it well worth the $15 one-time price if you regularly have students collaborate and discuss in your classroom. My students and I have loved the Backchannel Chat experience, and it has really elevated the level of discussion in my classroom!