Sunday, March 1, 2009

Backchanneling Basics #2 - Why Backchannel?

Why backchannel? The reasons are twofold: giving quiet, shy students a voice and increasing student participation.

Reaching the quiet, shy students was the reason that first brought me to backchanneling. Throughout my teaching career, I've encountered a number of students like this, and on the rare occasion I was able to break the ice, the student often had unique insights and interesting ways of looking at things. With the right vehicle, I suspected that more students might be reached and given a voice.

Increasing student participation was a benefit that I didn't consider until AFTER I'd found a backchanneling vehicle. For a number of years I had been a proponent of using Socratic Seminars in the teaching of my English class, especially literature. But to really judge whether a student knew the work being discussed, they had to be given a chance to contribute. With that in mind, my seminars had often ben limited to half my class, so about 15 students directly participating. What did I do with the other half? They listened and summarized the discussion going on, awaiting their turn the next time to be the active participant. (I did keep one seat open in the discussion group for guest participants, but again, that was only one spot shared among up to 15 students.) I've since learned that this use is often referred to as the Fishbowl Technique.

As I've implemented backchanneling, my hopes have been realized as I've used it. The first time I ran a backchannel, I witnessed 100 percent class participation with all students jumping in multiple times, and I've seen that happen many times since then. I saw students, some who had only rarely participate in class offer interesting perspectives. These kids earned additional respect from their classmates for their insights and were often looked to for their thinking in future discussions, both traditional and backchannel.

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