Teaching live online is scary, but it looks like a necessity for the immediate future. Sure, there are teachers who are wonderfully comfortable setting up virtual classrooms, sharing screens, juggling multiple windows, and pasting links, all while appearing calm, composed, and charming on the webcam. Meanwhile, others struggle with multitasking. They cringe when they catch a glimpse of their resting Zoom face. They share their screen to present yet panic when the familiar screen layout disappears. They are flummoxed by multiple tabs and layers upon layers of windows. Their colleagues' talk of apps, extensions, and add-ons is a foreign language. Though they spent the summer immersed in training to build up their online instruction prowess, they freeze when the pressure is on because their new learning is still new, and they can't yet navigate everything fluently. If you are an educator in this second group, please know you are not alone. You are in a silent majority, I suspect.
If the thought of teaching online is giving you nightmares, it's time to make friends with The Chat. Every synchronous learning platform I know has a feature that allows participants to post text into a stream that everyone else in the session can read. Different platforms have different bells and whistles, but a standard chat feature is constant in all. With the goal of engaging students in mind, the chat can be your best friend and not-so-secret weapon to get learners to respond without having to execute any fancy online maneuvers.
When you are teaching online, the chat may be the only tool you need for synchronous engagement. Once you give it a try, you'll discover that the chat feature is a simple yet effective tool to meet a multiplicity of teacher needs.
Getting to Know Your Students: The first few minutes of an online session is a great time to pose a question for students to answer so you and their classmates can get to know them. As a "bell ringer," have students add their responses to the chat: What's your favorite food (or animal, team, place, YouTuber, thing to watch or listen to, blog)? What is something everyone should know about you? What was something embarrassing you did that you're willing to share with others? What makes you laugh? What's a quality you admire in others? in yourself? Be sure to share your own answer so others can get to know you, too. You get teacher bonus points as an educator if you can devise an opening question that also provides an engaging focus to build students' interest in the day's lesson. As the year goes on, invite students to submit their own ideas for opening questions.
Taking a Temperature Check: Social-emotional learning is especially important in a remote learning environments where teachers can't pick up on nonverbal cues and body language as they greet their students each day. Part of your daily routine can involve checking in with students to see how they are doing emotionally. Post a number in the chat from 1 to 5 to let me know how you're feeling today. 5 means fantastic; 1 means lousy. As you get to know your students better, you can ask them to elaborate on or explain their responses if they choose. Another option is to ask students to post an emoji that tells how they're doing. To access emojis in Google Meets, students can right click (or two-finger click on a touchpad) and select "Emoji" from the menu.
Assessing Prior Knowledge: Have you ever been in a class where the teacher didn't realize that all the students already knew everything they were teaching that day? Or have you, as a teacher, ever discovered midway through a unit that one of your students is an expert on the topic being covered? The chat can be a great place to ascertain what your students may already know before you teach a lesson. You can ask students to rate their own knowledge of a subject or proficiency of a skill with a simple numeric or letter-grade scale. You could also pose an open-ended prompt or question: What is everything you know or think you know about reptiles? List as many US politicians as you can. When I say the word "Renaissance," what names, places, or ideas come to mind? In the chat, give me examples of adjectives. Take notice of who is responding and the accuracy of their responses to give you an idea of how to proceed.
Checking for Attention: Sometimes you just want to know if your students are still awake or paying attention or if they are flipping through Tik Tok videos as you teach to an empty e-classroom. Asking students to provide a quick response in the chat every few minutes encourages them to stay mentally online during instruction. This is the virtual learning equivalent of "Can I get an 'amen'?" Try using some check-ins like these: Type yes or no to tell us whether you agree or disagree with that. If you're following what I am saying, type, "Got it" in the chat. Give me an LOL if you thought that dad joke was at least a little bit funny and a NLOL if you are not laughing. Put that definition into your own words. What are some qualities of a good friend? Keeping the pace lively with lots of opportunities to respond in the chat will promote active attention and engagement and will keep your students on their toes (or at least their fingertips on their keyboards).
Building Community: When your students celebrate one another's contributions and affirm one another, they grow closer as a community of learners. Many great AVID teachers I know incorporate a variety of claps, cheers, and chants to create group celebrations in live classrooms. The chat can be a channel for similar affirmations. When a student gives a well-reasoned response, invite your students to add some words of praise or encouragement into the chat. Develop some class traditions. I like the Power Wooosh, where everyone types the word "Woooosh!"(spelling is not standardized in onomatopoeia world, so spell it however you think it is spelled) into the chat but doesn't press send until I give the signal. Then, on the count of three, we all press send and overwhelm the chat with simultaneous explosions of positive energy directed toward the student(s) who did something praiseworthy. Ask your students to come up with ways to affirm one another, to celebrate accomplishments, to acknowledge birthdays, etc. Pretty soon, your virtual classroom will feel more and more like an in-person community.
Encouraging Curiosity: What questions do you have about. . . ? What do you want to know about this topic? Post one thing you wonder about this topic. Questions like these can turn your chat into a wonderland of wonderment. Ask students to add a question to their notes and then add it to the chat. These questions can form the basis for future instruction or for a class research assignment. Using students' questions as the basis for later research assignments and activities can build buy-in.
Taking a Brain Break: For a fun one-minute activity each day, play a quick round of Truth or Falsehood. You can start by stating one true or untrue statement about yourself and then asking students to put in the chat to indicate whether they think the statement is a truth or a falsehood. Did my teacher really meet Cher in an elevator in Vegas? Did my teacher really once live in a house previously owned by a murderer? Has my teacher really never eaten broccoli? Once the votes are cast, reveal the answer and see how many students you stumped (BTW, only one of those is true about me). A different student can be assigned each day to try to stump the class.
Formative Assessment: Use the chat as a quick check to see how well students are understanding what you are teaching. A 1-5 self-score about level of comprehension, a multiple choice question, or a one-sentence summary of what you've learned can be a speedy way to take a snapshot of how students are doing. It's not the most accurate since students are self reporting and could just copy the answer of the people who posted more quickly, but it's better than not checking in at all. When you don't have the time or the expertise to do a Google Form or use another tool, the chat can provide some data to help you know whether to keep teaching, slow down, or speed ahead. Consider saving the chat at the end of your class session to have more time to peruse student responses.
Developing Language: Providing students with language stems or with sentence frames can help students build confidence in putting words together using correct English syntax (or another language if you're a LOTE teacher). Create intentional moments where you ask students to compose a complete sentence in the chat, and give them a frame to help the reluctant ones start. A compare or contrast lesson can turn into a writing skill builder with a frames like these: Although many mammals __________, humans are among the only ones that ________. The Great Depression and the Recession of 2020 were both characterized by ___________; however, the Great Depression ________. As students write complex sentences and receive praise for their efforts, they will begin transfer that skill to other writing and to speaking. Another way the chat can be a language learner's friend is to use it to generate academic vocabulary prior to writing. Before having students summarize their learning, ask the class to add to the chat any academic words they think should appear in most good summaries of the content. Ask students to incorporate a specified number of words from the community word bank into their summaries.
Building Writing Fluency: The more students write, the better they will get and the more easily they will put words together. Operating a classroom where the chat feature is in heavy use can increase the amount of linguistic output of your students significantly. Find opportunities to encourage increasingly lengthy and elaborate responses using correct sentence structure and conventions, but don't correct aggressively. It's better to praise what you want to see than shame students for taking unsuccessful risks.
Synthesizing and Summarizing Learning: Asking students to sum up their learning or pull everything together from a series of lessons can be an effective exit ticket in an online classroom. Write one great sentence that captures the gist of what we learned today. In exactly 25 words, summarize what you want to remember about insects after today's lesson. Add to the chat the most important thing you learned in class today. Write your prediction about what you think will happen to the main character when we resume this story next time. Summarizing is an essential life skill that will make students more effective note-takers, create better writers, reinforce the learning for long-term retention, and prevent them from boring others with long-winded stories at dinner parties in their future.
Speaking of becoming long-winded and boring, I've probably maxed out your attention span with these ideas. I'd love to hear some of yours, though, so if you have other thoughts about how to use the chat to improve instruction online, add them to the comments (the asynchronous chat, if you will) below.