What kinds of activities can you run with a backchannel? In this week's post, I'll speak exclusively to the ideas I've come across within my building. Up next, I'll talk about the ideas others have come across for using a backchannel in the classroom.
One way a backchannel can be used is as another layer during a Socratic Seminar. I found, especially with my larger classes, that I could only effectively engage 10-15 students (an inner-circle) in a Seminar and really gauge whether or not they read a novel or other work. In a normal class, that often left me with another 10-15 students (an outer-circle) who were left with a strictly listening activity. I could have the outer-circle take notes on what was being said, but that didn't allow them to interact with the text. However, with a backchannel in place, the outer-circle could now react to what the inner-circle was saying, ask questions of each other, and from time to time even discuss their own question independent of the inner-circle. This got ALL the students in my class involved and thinking about the chapters or text assigned. One aspect of this I personally found to be cool was when I could then take a discussion from the outer-circle and pose the question to the inner-circle to see what they thought of the issue that had come up.
Another use of a backchannel is for a totally silent discussion. Again, this is a discussion based on something the kids had read, and often times, if I have a really good question, there is only one question posed to the students at the start of the teaching period; otherwise, they guide the discussion, answering the core question as well as posing off-shoot questions for the remainder of the class period.
Finally, I know that teachers have started to run backchannels during movies they show in class. I had personally given up showing students movies and videos a number of years ago because of the difficulty in finding an engaging and meaning activity for the viewing. With a backchannel, the students can ask questions about the movie or video that is confusing to them. Sometimes I answer the question; other times, the students answer each other's questions. The backchannel can also be used to garner student feedback, check for understanding, or preview a difficult or important concept. While I'm still not a huge fan of showing video clips in class, they are at least a more meaningful and engaging affair now that I have the ability to run a backchannel.