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.





Reflections on this semester’s love affair with technology

Othello wordle

I could use the extended metaphor of a torrid romance with a sexy bad boy to describe my experience with technology this semester, but that might a bit overblown and, some might argue, a product of my students’ obsession with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Zombies are also trendy right now, but I don’t think brain is equipped to fashion that metaphor right now.

So, let’s get to it.

As I finish up this semester I’ve had some hits and misses. If you’ve read some of my other posts this year (and I know, they have been few and far between. New school, new challenges, new excuses), you’ll know that I approached my classes with year with a kind of outlook that can only be described as naively optimistic. I saw rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere I looked. I assumed my students would be putty in my hands because they were digital natives and I GOT them. So, in summary:

Stumbling blocks:

  • I didn’t consider that other members of the staff might resent the fact that two English classes were scheduled in a computer lab every day when access to computer labs is already at a premium. Not my fault, but it didn’t really matter.
  • Although my students are digital natives, they were not all tech-savvy
  • Although most of my students use social networking sites and web 2.0 apps on a regular basis, a number of them balked at using these tools for educational purposes
  • Many students were opposed to sharing their work (even though many of them are okay with showing inappropriate pictures on facebook!)
  • Some of my students have adopted anti-technology positions in, what I can only assume is, a desire to please authority figures who condemn technology as frivolous or non-academic.
  • Paper: I still need paper for some things, and for some reason I feel like I’m being judged as a bad teacher if my students don’t have any paper handouts. I’m working on it.
  • Oh, and apparently I adopt every new tool that interests me.

Now, for the good news:

  • Some of my students changed their minds. I had a student tell me that initially, he was “creeped-out” by edmodo, because he didn’t really understand what it was. He is a thoughtful cautious student who has taken to heart all the warnings about the dangers of posting too much information about yourself online. As the student learned that social networking sites can be leveraged for positive purposes, he came to love edmodo because he found that he could access assignments and send me messages using a tool he was already using (um, that’s the internet if you’re wondering. Or the “the infornet” as my mother-in-law calls it).  Edmodo has been a huge success. It’s eliminated a great deal of paper–not to mention excuses.
  • Ning: I used Ning for a number of different purposes. At first I didn’t really know how I’d use it (I’m finishing my action research project on this and I’ll post it soon so I won’t go into great detail here), but eventually the most significant use became blogging. Some of my students were skeptical about the Ning at first, but their work stands for itself. They shared and read ideas they would have never otherwise encountered. They also reached much deeper levels of synthesis and analysis because their posts were not “published pieces” in a traditional sense.
  • My website and class blog. I did a pretty good job of updating my class blogs on a daily basis. Now when I scroll back through my posts, I have a wonderful series of snapshots of my semester. It’s fantastic. I never managed to update my “daybook” or planner the way I’ve kept my blog up to date.

In the immortal words of Joss Whedon, “Where do we go from here?” (Oh, Buffy, how I miss you)

  • I’m going to use Ning even more, and try to do even more with student blogging now that I have evidence that supports its effectiveness.
  • Edmodo: I need to do more training at the beginning of the semester so that students use edmodo properly. (How to submit an assignment vs. how to send a link)
  • Use less paper. I can do it!
  • Bring in Diigo. Love Diigo, but didn’t really get a chance to try it.

I think that’s plenty for now. I’ll keep you posted.

I promise.

No really!