Pure Bliss (Is that even possible nowadays?)

When I look back to this year, I’ll need to take some very large deep breaths to allow myself to remember the emotional toll that it took. But I’m hoping that I’ll never forget the incredibly deep gratitude I have for so many of you who have gone through this year with me. I don’t know that I have EVER felt as deeply connected to other educators as I do right now. And these connections have fostered some of the richest collaboration I could ever imagine.

I think of the great jazz musicians, or other pure improvisational bands like Phish, and how their artistic craft riffs off one another. BECAUSE teachers have had to reinvent our craft and BECAUSE we are in this together, there has been some true improvisational bliss that has gone down.

I teach 8th grade math in Berkeley, CA and our entire district uses Desmos’ math curriculum which is based on Illustrative Mathematics’ lessons. I love Desmos. I am a Desmos Fellow and a Desmos Certified Presenter and having an entire year’s worth of curriculum in Desmos is pretty much a dream come true for me. HOWEVER…it wasn’t written with distance learning in mind and as fabulous as it is, I sometimes find it very hard to have authentic student-student discourse and collaboration over Zoom, particularly in breakout rooms because in Desmos there is no way for multiple students to be working on the same screen simultaneously. Google Slides and Jamboard allow this, but frankly, I am so in love with the Desmos curriculum and pedagogical tools, I had no interest in modifying it to use with another tech tool.

This graphic comes from a recent EdWeek article on remote learning. I have some critiques of the article which are outside the scope of this blog post, but this graphic stuck with me. My desire to have structured student-student discourse has been keeping me up at night, and one of my colleagues, Lara Collins at King Middle School has been making these really wonderful Google Slide shows for activities to use in breakout rooms. The improvisational jazz riffing is that I used Lara’s slide show, plus a perfect post-breakout room reflection tool from Marlo Warburton at Longfellow Middle School, plus ideas from this SUPER practical webinar by Theresa Willis and suggestions from Rose who is also doing incredible things with Desmos and Google Slides.

Students had just learned about y=mx+b and needed time to practice graphing lines.

  1. Go into breakout rooms for 4 minutes and figure out your birthday order and write your names in the boxes of job roles in order. Your breakout room # is the same as your slide #. Breakout rooms in my classroom are stable. They have been the same for 3 months now so everyone knows their room #. Each has 3-4 students. There are 5 jobs here, so some students had more than 1 job. **SIDENOTE** I have a rotation breakout room job which is the AAA: Anti-Awkward-Analyst. They choose who will do that job but their role is to make jokes, encourage cameras on, tell a story, and encourage everyone to participate. I get feedback from the AAA after breakout room days.

2. Back in main room, I modeled each job. The slope person writes the slope of the line in the box. The y-intercept person writes the y-intercept and moves the blue dot to the y-intercept’s value. Then the points person drags all the points onto the graph, using the slope and y-intercept. Finally the line tool person drags the line and connects the points. Finally, the status checker decides if it’s all correct and if they believe it is, they change the yellow text box to green.

3. I am sitting alone in the main room watching all the slides, using “Grid View’ as needed. When I see the status box turn green, I look at the slide and see if it’s correct. If it is, I turn their status box back to yellow, delete their equation and paste in a new one from this list. I purposefully made each a different color so they would see that a new one had been pasted and so I could quickly eyeball which # they are on. If there are errors on their graph, I turn the status box to red When I first do that, I don’t provide any feedback. However if a few minutes have then passed and that slide isn’t corrected and turned back to green, I paste a brightly colored text box on their slide with 1-2 questions or feedback to push their thinking.

4. Once they have a new equation, the student whose job is the ‘undoer’ drags the points and line away to prepare for the new equation.

Students spent about 15 minutes doing this and while each worked at their own pace, every group got enough done to become proficient at graphing these equations. I use the Cool Downs in Desmos’ curriculum as my formative assessments.

5. Finally, I turn off the public chat and make it so students can only chat privately with me. That’s when they give me their feedback using these sentence starters.

As I receive their private chats, I read aloud the ones where a specific student is shouted out.

The very next time we do breakout rooms, I choose a few refections from the previous day for them to read and challenge them to do an even better job collaborating than last time.

This year has been an endless journey. But I am so thankful to be going through it with so many of you who inspire and challenge me daily to figure out what’s possible. I’m now super curious to think about ways to use Google Slides (or Jamboard) in conjunction with Desmos. I’d love to see ways you’ve connected the two or simply how you’re structuring your online group-work in Desmos to create more sustained and genuine student-student conversations.

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