3 things that ‘chat’ function has taught me about classroom talk

The power of capturing conversations and being precise about language

Associate Senior Leader of Secondary School

“Write it in the chat!” If you’re teaching live online lessons at the moment, you’re probably saying this on repeat to each class you teach. It’s the new “turn to your partner” or “hands up”. It may be the smallest of many changes to happen in the past few weeks, but for me, it’s probably the most significant. 

We’ve seen the teaching landscape change radically; no classrooms, no timetables, no exams, no corridors, no physical resources. Most of the things we ‘know’ as school, gone in 48 hours. It’s pushing us to notice what we are missing and what we value. To re-invent, re-shape and re-purpose what we thought we knew. So why, of all these changes, is the ‘chat’ function on Google Hangouts and Zoom the one to leave permanent marks on my classroom practice?

Tucked away to the right of the screen it’s like MSN Messenger-style throwback, inviting us to engage in some form of communication during the meeting. In staff meetings and lessons alike, it becomes the virtual replacement for questions, recognition, mutterings of agreement (and disagreement), and ideas generation. Subcultures emerge in it, in-jokes are shared and new allegiances forged; we turn to it in place of the live chat we all crave right now. I’ve certainly found myself leaning on it in lessons for things I would use live ‘chat’ for in the classroom. Now, I’m not advocating a replacement of live chat with this virtual discussion board, but so far it has taught me three key things which I will be taking back to the physical classroom when we return:

1. Capturing the conversation

Earlier today I was pulling the chat off a Y10 English lesson on Google Hangouts and sorting bits into my notes. I realised when sifting through the chat reel just how much I lose from lesson to lesson in the real world of the classroom. I’ve been doing this pretty much every lesson in the virtual school without thinking about it; stealing key interactions, phrasing and questions and folding them straight back into my planning. So how could this look back in real life? I can’t just download the chat from a live lesson. But I can plan to capture talk better, whether by note-taking myself during normal class chat, giving students listening and capturing roles during group talk or even recording sections of conversation, and then vitally using these notes for next planning steps.

2. Pushing precision

I’ve noticed myself pushing for much more precise language choice from students with their chat being written and it’s becoming a comfortable norm to ask for this throughout lessons. I think I may have started doing it to move them away from the casual slang of the typing teenager, but it’s really paying dividends in quality and precision of word choice, and in turn the quality of their analysis and interpretations. This prompts me to think more carefully about how I can intentionally cultivate the linguistic strand of oracy in student talk when we are back; this could be as simple as thorough planned modelling of this precision myself, highlighting student word choice and playing verbal games to notice the nuance of word choice.

3. Missing: paired talk!

It’s been interesting to notice what I haven’t missed (or even noticed the absence of) in the online classroom: exercise books… tables… uniform… But the one thing I’ve missed in every lesson and agonised over in my planning, is the one thing the ‘chat’ function can’t replicate: paired talk. Not just talk in general – you can achieve that on a virtual lesson with some creativity and clear expectations – but paired talk specifically. Somewhere in virtual lesson 1, I realised just how much I rely on paired conversation in my normal classroom: for exploratory talk, rolling ideas around, predicting and musing over possibilities and opinions; for probing talk, posing challenging questions, derailing and furthering thinking and finding conflict through paired writing; for chances to explore, deepen, challenge, collaborate. It will be the first thing I bring back. In the meantime? Perhaps I need to ask every student to bring a family member to lessons with them? Thoughts? Write it in the chat…

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