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How do I manage whole-class discussions virtually?

december 15, 2020

Creating a classroom where all students are participating in the in-class discussion is hard. And when you put masks on those same kids or set them in front of webcams, the conversation is quickly stifled. Although many students might enjoy “hiding” during these discussions, teachers are desperate to hear from them.

When identifying techniques to increase student participation in whole-class conversations, look for those that work in both the traditional and virtual classroom. With students and teachers frequently transitioning between the two, a single consistent strategy is best.

Use hand gestures

A favorite strategy for Smekens Education consultants is to introduce Talk Moves. These are non-verbal hand gestures that allow the teacher to see what all kids are thinking—without speaking a word.

In a live, online classroom, teachers can pose a question and then allow one student to unmute and provide an answer. Meanwhile, all the other students remain engaged by using Talk Moves to react to their peer’s response. And when all students are displayed on gallery view, the rest of the class can communicate while staying muted.

Before Talk Moves can become part of the instructional routine, students need an opportunity to learn and practice each gesture. While there are eight different moves, start slowly by focusing on the four most commonly used.

Talk Move: Answer
For this move, a single thumbs-up indicates that the student has an answer to the question posed by the teacher.

Talk Move: Agree
When students have listened to what their peer has said, and they are in agreement, they use this Talk Move. The hand gesture is a thumb pointing at himself and a pinkie pointing at his webcam.

Talk Move: Disagree
After students have listened to a peer’s response, but they have a different idea, they use this Talk Move to indicate disagreement. For this hand gesture, students use their forefingers to tap the side of their heads, indicating they have another thought.

Talk Move: Add On
The most valuable discussions occur when students layer their thoughts on one another’s. Encourage this with the add-on gesture. Using both hands, stack one fist atop the other. This indicates that they would like to add or build on to a peer’s original idea.

After students have been introduced to these four simple Talk Moves, be intentional about integrating them throughout each day. Practice them virtually, reminding students to make their gestures within full view of their webcams.

Talk Moves

Keep in mind these are just four of eight Talk Moves. Deepen their conversations with the remaining four. And, to help students remember the sign and purpose of each, many teachers use our poster set.

Establish order

Any virtual discussion has to operate under some semblance of order. Without it, students will interrupt each other and/or talk over one another. Therefore, when targeting virtual discussions, integrate the “mute” and “unmute” hold-up signs.

These two simple tools depict the red graphic icon for “mute” and the green icon for “unmute.” When each printed icon is attached to a pencil or paint stick, teachers can use them in a variety of ways.

Use the “mute” sign to:
1. Let the whole class know when to mute their microphones.
2. Gently remind the group that someone still has his microphone on.

Use the “unmute” sign to:
1. Call on individual students.
2. Remind students who are muted but attempting to speak.

These simple, nonverbal gestures and signs offer a mix of both management and motivation. Both keep students active and watching for visual clues from their peers and the teacher.

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