Managing Zoom Breakout Rooms

I don’t have a specific lesson to share this week, but I’ve been pleased by how much more productive breakout rooms have gotten in my virtual classroom. Here are some strategies I’m using to make it so.

(1) Reminder of the norms
Every. single. time. I remind kids about cameras on and unmuting mics when working with a small group, along with all the other norms that my class created at the beginning of the semester.

(2) Clear WRITTEN instructions
Think about group work when you’re in-person with kids. I bet every 2 seconds you have a kid ask, “Wait, what are we doing?”. It’s just the nature of teaching, and even adults often need the directions more than once. With breakout rooms, it’s hard for kids to ask their questions quickly to the host (they can call me to their room, but that takes time, especially when several groups have the same question). That’s why it’s so important to give specific instructions in writing on what students are doing in their breakout rooms. If you put those instructions in the chat, remember that it disappears to the kids when they enter the breakout room, so I ask them to take a picture with their phones or write it down themselves.

(3) Create a product
I always get a product of student work, even in a quick informal check-in. If the product is the conversation itself (e.g. a speaking task in Spanish), I often ask one student per group to record the conversation and send it to me after the Zoom (you can allow them to record by clicking next to their name and selecting ‘Allow to record’ while they are in the main Zoom room).

My favorite “product” is Google Slides, because it is so versatile from informal note taking to academic presentations, and I can see their updates in real time. I share one editable Google Slides with the whole class, and on the first slide there are instructions and links to each group’s individual slide(s). I can even put a reminder of norms on the instruction slide, combining 3 strategies into one!

Alternatively or additionally, the product can be something they have to share with the group when they return from breakout rooms.

(4) Timing
This took me quite a bit of practice to figure out pacing with breakout rooms, but it’s essential that students have just enough time to complete the task if I want them focused. I can always put them back in the breakout rooms if they need more time, so I tend to err on giving them the least amount of time possible at first. Another thing I do if they are working on a larger group task is I break it into chunks and have a couple of whole class check-ins where I call everyone back from the breakout rooms every 5-10 minutes. I remember that we can’t focus on Zoom as long as we can in the classroom, so check-ins and brain breaks need to be more frequent.

Bonus Tips:
Here are some tips that I myself am still learning in virtual land.

  • Groups Roles
    I did this a lot in my in-person classroom, but it slid to the back burner in Zoom land. It’s time to bring it back so that groups work together equitably.
  • Intentional Groupings
    I think I do this about 50% of the time, where I’m really thoughtful about who is in which group. Often it’s easier to just put them in random groups…but I think it’s better to plan them before class OR sometimes to intentionally let them choose their own groups. It’s been more difficult for me in this virtual format to see who works together well.
  • Debrief the process
    This is another thing I used to do in my real classroom that I really need to bring into virtual land. I use a lot of protocols in my class and one of the great things about protocols is that not only do you do the thing, you debrief how you did the thing at the end. I could see it being really useful to debrief the process that students followed in breakout rooms when we come back as a whole group, so they can begin to see why we work together in the first place!

One last thing…it takes time for kids to learn these new routines just like it’s taken us some time as teachers! If the first couple times you use breakout rooms it’s a disaster, keep working on it. It’s almost a year since schools in the states began to go virtual, and I don’t think we can keep saying this is temporary. We have to build these virtual routines just like we did in-person as first-year teachers.

I hope you find these tips helpful. What has been working well for you with virtual collaboration?

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