Students often struggle to be heard, even in the most inclusive classrooms. Without meaning to, confident students drown out quieter voices; teachers move heaven and earth to make time for more comments; and sometimes discussions touch on subjects that are hard to talk about face-to-face. Opening digital spaces for my students to share ideas, analyze literature and collaborate on projects has made a huge difference in how they work with each other. It has also changed the way I get to know them as learners.
When my middle school students were learning to blog, they shared their responses to a book the class had read together. After posting their writing on the blog, they read each other’s posts and commented on them. My goal was that they would deepen their understanding of and appreciation for literature through online conversations. I soon found that doing this in a digital space extended their thinking far beyond what a classroom discussion might do.
Since literature is more about people and life than it is about academics, student responses often include personal connections to the reading. In one post, shy, quiet Carrie shared how something in the story brought up a painful memory for her. Rarely speaking in class, Carrie had found her voice (and the confidence to use it) in the safe space of our class blog. Sophia, a popular outspoken student, responded online to Carrie with genuine concern and empathy, offering “a hug whenever she needed one.” These two students were not friends at this point, and probably would not have shared so personally face-to-face. The blog provided a space for them to comfortably communicate in a personal way while also engaging them in literary analysis.
Dipping our toes into blogging showed me that digital spaces can offer every student – not just the talkative ones or the confident ones – opportunities to be heard, to have a voice, and to be understood. In crowded classrooms, discussions are limited by space, time, and personalities. Digital spaces not only give voice to every student, but they also give every student the chance to hear their classmates, discover what they might have in common, and build empathy as they connect around academic work.
In my other classroom, our Design Lab has transitioned this year from laptops to desktops. Although we are thrilled with the improvements, this also means students are hidden from each other behind the large monitors that make it difficult for them to see, talk, hear, and respond to their classmates. They work on a variety of self-chosen projects, and I want them to be able to share these projects and give and receive feedback. We are finding Padlet to be a great platform for this purpose. Padlet is a digital bulletin board that allows users to post text and also attach images, videos, and documents. My students use Padlet to ask their classmates questions and give suggestions on their projects in progress.
Another benefit of having students share in digital spaces is that they can go back to those spaces to continue conversations or revisit what was said. My Design Lab students go back to their Padlet conversations to see who is using the same program they are. They then use this information to get help or collaborate with this classmate in person. In English class, we can return to discussions to add new insights from our ongoing reading.
Another useful tool that gets students talking and listening to each other is Flipgrid. This simple app allows students to film themselves as they speak. It’s a great way to give students practice speaking, as well as listening, when they watch and respond to their classmates’ vids.
Digital spaces can also help teachers and students connect in new ways. This year I asked my students to make a selfie video to introduce themselves to me. I told them to limit it to 60 seconds, and to tell me about their hobbies and favorite books, to ask me questions they have about our class, and to film in a location that is special to them. Students filmed themselves with their phones or district-provided iPads, and then submitted their videos via Google Classroom. I promised that their videos would not be made public, which allowed them to share openly and honestly. My goodness, I learned so much about each student in less than a minute – much more than I might learn in the classroom or through a written introduction! They filmed in their backyards or bedrooms, with a dog or cat (or hamster or bird) in their lap. They showed me their trophies and ribbons, their family photos, and favorite stuffed animals. They asked questions about the class and shared their favorite books. And I was able to learn their names and personalities so much faster, thanks to their introduction videos.
An added bonus to using digital spaces to share and communicate is that they give students a meaningful context for practicing digital citizenship skills. Prior to any online work, my students and I review expectations for academic writing, thoughtful questions, and constructive feedback.
There are lots of great ways to share, contribute, respond, and connect with digital tools, giving each student not only a voice, but valuable speaking, listening, reading, and writing practice. Here are some resources to get you started:
- Blogging: Weebly, KidBlog, Blogger, WordPress, even a Google Doc can be used for blogging.
- Padlet: How to Use Padlet: A Fantastic Tool for Teaching
- FlipGrid: Catch the FlipGrid Fever! 15+ Ways to Use FlipGrid in Your Class
- Poll Everywhere: Great Ways to Use Poll Everywhere in the Classroom
- TodaysMeet: 20 Useful Ways to Use TodaysMeet in Schools
And if you would like to try blogging with your students, here are three articles offering up some great tips:
- Blogging in the 21st Century Classroom
- Blogging for English Language Learners
- Start a Reading Revolution: Flip Your Class with Blogs