Discourse in a Digital World

      I get it. I feel the pain. I know how much it eats away inside of you. Inside of us. Trying to teach remotely. And, as a teacher, facing a digital room full of blank icons, particularly when they stay on mute the entire class can cause us to feel anxious and ineffective (side note – how awkward of a sentence would that be if we read that a year ago – and look where we are now). Not only do I want to see and hear my students as they engage in mathematics, but I also want to build relationships and get to know my students – yet that seems near impossible when students build these digital walls.

      As math teachers, that challenge to get students to authentically engage in discourse has always seemed to be more difficult. Students have a hard time diving into conversations around mathematics as it’s always been about an answer, and not a process, for them. But I believe, strongly, that learning is a social construct, and we need each other to learn. Yet the only way to have that social interaction is through communication – i.e. discourse. And sure, I would love it if the discourse was verbal, but written discourse in mathematics has its place too.

      So, while I am and do struggle with this – getting students to engage in discourse in the digital world - I have come across a few ideas that can increase digital engagement. Strategies that I have used as a teacher. Strategies I have seen other teachers doing remotely that have worked fairly well. And so I want to leave you with these tips and, as always, feel free to reach out with questions and/or comments on how these strategies can be implemented in your digital settings.


Warm Welcome

      Starting class digitally, we have fallen back on some of our routines of old. Do now’s and Warm- ups. And yes, we want the students to engage in mathematics, but think about what we can do if we open up these “Welcomes” to truly encourage dialogue, and, dare I say cameras being turned on. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask the students a question you know they have an input on but also helps you to know them better like “What is your favorite season and why?” (Courtesy of Ms. Olivia Lawhon), “What is your favorite thing to do on the weekends?” (Courtesy of Mr. Shawn Jackson), or “What was your first pet/what would your first pet be?” (Courtesy of me).
  • Find a way to encourage the use of camera for these Warm Welcomes. For example, create some structured days to your lessons like “Friday Hat Day” where students can come on camera show off their hats and explain why they like it so (Courtesy of Ms. Lisa Lutz).
  • Think about these two ideas in the context of math. For example, as an introduction to inequalities, my students drew and described a picture of equality and inequality. Or asking the students to describe where in their world they have seen parabolas.

Eliciting Students to Share Ideas in Class

      When I present a longer task to my students, instead of asking them to type the answer into the chat, I ask them to either (1) use a symbol so I know they’ve done it, (2) ask them something specific about the problem that’s not the answer (like what is one question that arose while working this problem out OR using an emoji let me know how you felt you did with this problem), or (3) ask them to answer a question in the chat that helps me to learn a little more about them (NOTE: I usually answer this question as well). This does two things. First, it gives students a safe way to communicate they have finished without spoiling the work for the rest of the students in the class. Second, it allows me to ask students to explain their thinking and the answers they have arrived at as I know they are done. The beauty of getting one student to start talking over their mics is that it usually snowballs – if they are saying more than just a few words, others are likely to join into that conversation. So save this for big tasks that can be explained!

      As an added bonus, when I use that third method, I get a lot of dialogue (even some unmuted dialogue) about the ‘getting to know you’ questions. Some of my favorites are: What have you binge watched lately, what is one book that everyone should read, what sport do you like best, tell me something boring about yourself, etc.


Breakout Rooms – Structures
      Many of us have tried breakout rooms, be it on Zoom or on Google Meets – and have had varying levels of success. There are a few key pieces that I think are important to ensuring that when we ask our students to work in Breakout Rooms, the time is spent interacting with each other and not just working simultaneously, on mute, and cameras off. These include:

  • Consistent grouping that students have a hand in determining. I have a consistent set of groups that I use when I want my students in groups of 3-4. They gave me input before I formed these as to who they do and don’t work well with. This is the most common group size so when need be, I remind them of their group numbers and send them off. They have grown to work well with each other because of this consistency.
  •  Roles and responsibilities. Before I send off the groups, I try to ensure two things: (1) they know what is expected of them as a group, and (2) they know what their individual role in the group is (for example, writer – to fill in a shared document, reporter – to report back to the class what happened, facilitator – to keep the group on task and moving, etc).
  • Don’t abandon them to work alone. I make it a point to be in and out of groups to check on what they are doing, listen to what they are saying, and provide support and feedback. Not only that, but the first thing I do as I pop into the groups is to ask them what they are responsible and who is doing what roles.
  • Give feedback about how they are functioning as a group. (Courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Moriarty) Instead of responding to just the math that students are doing, give them feedback on how they are doing it, how they are upholding their roles, and how they can improve those group dynamics.
  • Maintain a central line of communication. In Google Meets, this means I ask students to keep the original room open, but mute themselves. In Zoom, this means the messaging feature that you can send to all groups at once. Either way, keep them aware of time cues, common errors, and talking points.


Breakout Rooms – Activities

      After finding ways to get students to work together effectively, the next thing to consider is the what – what will be done within their group. Here’s a few activities that I have tried personally and have seemed to work fairly well:

  • Jamboard World Café – If you are familiar with Jamboard, awesome. If not, think of it as an interactive whiteboard you can share. What I do for this activity is I post worked out problems and ask the groups to spend 5 minutes (or so given the complexity of the problem) to examine the task in front of them. During that time, they are to take notes on the problem, discuss the problem with their group, and leave virtual post-its on the problem to both clarify the work and pose meaningful questions. Each group uses a different color post-it in this process. As they go, they should also look to answer questions from other groups. At the end, give the students a few minutes to look back over all the work.
  • Jigsaw – Divide and Conquer! Give each group a skill and resources to master that skill then put them in charge of teaching the rest of the class about their skill. Use of roles is key here to get all members to participate in this process.
  • Padlet Competition – Want students to RACE to answer a question while working in a group virtually? Create a Padlet (I use the shelving method) where students answer a given question in the corresponding column. You can see who entered the answer and when. Bonus – they can upload a photo of their work through the app as well.
  • Points Activity – Instead of a typical worksheet, make each problem worth the amount of “points” that it’s numbered. Tell students they have to go in order and they have to share their answers with you when you pop in (in Google Meets, I tell them to use the Chat, in Zoom, I would say they can show over their camera when you pop in). Record which ones they got right, tell them which ones they need to try again. At the end of class, call them together to tell them how they did!

Student Teacher Conferences

      One last idea – I try to host conferences one-on-one with my students about once a week. Doing this not only encourages them to talk, but usually, if you ask nicely, they turn on their camera. Not only does this help build the relationship between you and the students, but it’s also a great way to check in, help them navigate the difficulties of online learning, and make sure they are getting the most out of the course (and their grades) as they can.

      There you have it. These are by no means all the answers. Nor are they all the best answers. But they work. Kids talk. They share and learn with and from each other. I get to know what they understand. And I get to know them. It’s not easy navigating the digital world, and it’s not easy getting kids truly engaged in online activities. But I hope these few ideas give you some ways to engage your students and, hopefully, prompt some meaningful discourse between students (and yourself).

Good luck out there!

Joseph Bolz ([email protected]net) is a 20 year High School Math Teacher. He currently serves as a Math Teacher, Department Chair, and Instructional Coach at George Washington High School in Denver.