Backchanneling Hamlet

I’ve tried using a backchannel before with my students, but I feel like after experimenting a little bit I’ve refined this strategy a bit more. I feel that you need to play a bit with a tool in order to find out how to use it best, but after that, you should choose the best tool for the job not the best job for the tool.

So when we were watching/reading Act 3 of Hamlet for the first time, I wanted students to really engage with the text. I know some English teachers want students to read the text before they watch the play, but I feel that since plays are meant to be seen and heard, I like to show the play first and then dig into the text. The problem with that is that sometimes students don’t really engage when they are viewing. I thought that a backchannel might be a way to encourage active viewing. So here’s what I did:

1) I created a set of guiding questions:

a. Does Hamlet really love Ophelia?

b. How do Hamlet’s views of the afterlife compare with Elizabethan views?

c. What are Hamlet’s views on acting?

d. How does Shakespeare develop the theme of appearance vs. reality?

2) I asked students to create code names. My hypothesis was that students who are normally too shy to contribute ideas during class discussions might be more willing to post anonymously. (In this case I didn’t worry about getting their codenames until the end of class, but depending on your class you might want to get them first for classroom management purposes.)

3) I told them that I wanted them to contribute at least three things to the discussion. They could ask a question (a legitimate question about something that they’re curious about, or a discussion question for their classmates), a comment, or a clarification.

4) I set up a todaysmeet room. Here it is:

5) Then we watched the film version of Hamlet (my current favourite is the Royal Shakespeare Company version featuring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. Dr Who and Captain Picard do Hamlet. How cool is that?)

6) I paused a few times in order to let the backchannel catch up. It was really interesting to see/hear what happened when I paused. The class was completely silent but they were having fast and furious conversations in the backchannel.

What worked:

  • Students were engaged. Even those who didn’t post frequently were still engaged because they were reading the backchannel and thinking of things to contribute.
  • Pausing occasionally to let people clarify and ask questions.
  • A lot of the issues/ideas that I would provide in the form of short lectures in between scenes were brought up by the students in the backchannel. I didn’t have to do anything except steer and moderate.

What I still need to work on:

  • I still didn’t get as much participation from my “quiet” students as I’d hoped. I need to figure out why. On Monday I’m going to ask them if it was because they were still shy, or because they weren’t sure what to say and see if they have any suggestions.

The funny thing is, we ran out of time so as I look back at the transcript, I still don’t know who everyone is. I’ll find out on Monday, but in the meantime it’s interesting to read and try to guess.

I should probably add that we used a combination of school netbooks (we had 13 today) and students’ personal devices: smartphones, laptops, ipod touches in order to participate in the backchannel. Todaysmeet works quite well on all of these devices.





Brevity is the Soul of (t)Wit


I’ve had a busy weekend. I started a podcast and a Twitter experiment. I’ve added a page to my blog with my podcast feed but my podcast is hosted on my website which you can find here. My main purpose for setting up my podcast is to learn about podcasting, but my secondary purpose, which is probably more important, is to share ideas with teachers in short manageable pieces.

My second weekend project is a little more ambitious. Ever since I followed Such Tweet Sorrow last year, I’ve been giving some thought to what I could do with it. I liked the idea of distilling a play down to its most basic components and I also liked the improvisational, real-time, experimental feel of the project. Prompted by a Facebook message from a friend of mine I decided to revisit the idea. A while back @ChrisKevill and I were tweeting about Hamlet and I half-jokingly suggested that we mount a Twitter Hamlet, but then I thought, not very many of my theatre friends are on Twitter. This weekend it occurred to me to approach it from the other direction: how many of my Twitter friends would be into Hamlet? I’m pretty jazzed about the idea of combining social media and theatre. So far I’ll have to wait and see how many responses I get before I can move forward with this project but I have a good feeling.

If you want to read more about this project, check out my Brevity is the Soul of (t)Wit website at

If you want to be part of the project, fill out the “audition sheet.” I’m quite confident I can find a role for everyone!

Hamlet Xtranormal

I heard about this site that lets you create movies simply by typing.

It’s pretty simple and I think the results speak for themselves. I can think of a lot of educational applications, particulary for the media literacy strand of English. What do you think?
I couldn’t resist. Here’s Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy.