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September 27, 2011
by: Gary Anderson
One of the year-end rituals with debatable value is final exams. At our school, most classes are required to end with a 90-minute final exam that comprehensively tests a semester’s worth of curriculum. This test is to be preceded by some kind of meaningful review.
I’m not a big fan of those tests or the reviews. Some teachers hand out massive review packets that students labor over for several days before the test. Maybe that works. I’m not judging, but it seems to me that if you can teach the whole class from a single packet in a few days, why not do that at the beginning instead of the end, and then move on to some kind of individualized learning projects for the rest of the semester?
My own approach is to post the essay questions online at the beginning of the semester so that students know exactly what’s coming and their thoughts can sort of incubate as the semester goes along. My review sessions sort of go like this: “OK. Does anyone have any questions about the final exam material?” As exam day draws closer, the questions become more specific, and I can see that the students are preparing, connecting ideas, considering organizational plans, and talking things over with each other.
Which brings me to what happened this week. In our American Studies class, our Ning provides a lot of resources and learning possibilities. One of the features that I don’t use very often is chat. I’m concerned that if I just left it on 24/7 it would be abused. My students are pretty solid, but I’m not comfortable with leaving a chat window wide open around the clock, so I don’t.
On the two evenings before our final exam, however, I opened up the chat, and good things happened. On the first night 9 or 10 students (out of 52) popped in and out. They asked some questions. I answered them, although they also answered questions for each other if I was away from the computer for a bit.
On the second night—Final Exam Eve—about half the class participated in a rich, flowing review session that was more satisfying than any in-class discussion we had all year! Joshua said he was having trouble thinking of a third example for his essay. Katie gave him an idea. I’ve never seen Joshua and Katie exchange a word to each other in class, but online they were learning together. Mike asked a question about how to organize his essay. Scott and Sam threw in their advice. Sara asked me to explain a phrase that I’d used in class a few times—“Individual Liberty vs. Preservation of Order.” I explained it, giving a few examples, and then a different Sara chimed in with another perfect example. At one point I said, “”Why do I have the feeling that our class would be different if we met at 10:00 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning?”
As the two-hour session continued, Sam and Kyle started teasing each a little bit, which I watched carefully, but I didn’t mind too much as they included our Greek roots-based vocabulary words in their gentle barbs: “Sam, I don’t understand you. Your language is too esoteric!” “Oh, my antipathy is boiling over!” “I’m LOL-ing so hard I’m afraid my endocrine gland is gonna burst!”
At about 10:30 p.m., I gave fair warning that I would be ending the chat and removing it from the Ning at 11:00 p.m. Immediately, students started organizing a way to move the chat to Facebook. They talked about who would set it up, which happened in a flash, and how to invite everybody in. At 11:05, I asked if anyone had last-minute questions for me. A few students said thanks, and then I removed the chat feature and went to bed.
The next morning the test session began at 7:30 a.m. The chat participants didn’t seem particularly sleep-deprived. On the contrary, they seemed energized. Mike said, “That Ning chat was awesome.” Kim, who hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything all year, actually threw her fist in the year and yelled, “Woo, Ning chat!”
As it turns out, the students created the “American Studies Chat after 11:00” group on Facebook, complete with an avatar photo of my teaching partner and I recreating the famous 1890 Burnham and Root photo in The Rookery. They continued chatting there for another hour or so, and although I haven’t seen a transcript, they told me it continued in the same vein as the Ning chat that I was monitoring. (They posted a few ideas in the Group that were mostly funny, but most of the productive conversation happened through live messaging, they tell me.)
So what did I learn from this? First of all, students who are reluctant to participate in class can thrive in an online discussion. Second, online activities can be productive, good-natured, and valuable. (One of my colleagues the next morning poo-pooed the idea of an online test review as “a waste of time.” Um, not really.) Third, online activities can increase a sense of community as students interact with each other in ways that may not happen in a classroom. Finally, learning occurred because of the technology involved. If we had not conducted this chat-based test review, those students probably would not have communicated with each other or with me in the same way, and their learning would not have been enriched by that communication.
In the future, I’m looking for ways to use live, chat-based sessions for other learning opportunities. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d appreciate suggestions, success stories, and reactions. Thanks.