Whether you use Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams, having students in shared small groups can foster a deeper level of connection and communication, but depending on your class, the age of the students, and the content, it can be a scary moment to release control and trust the space. After all, one teacher cannot be everywhere, and if we are, are we really able to focus and offer support?
Breakout rooms allow me to connect with students and for them to connect with one another in a way that I believe is only possible in a smaller setting.
1. Short and sweet. Keep your breakout time very short! This will help students focus and stay on track. Keeping breakouts to under five minutes can help students understand the one thing they need to accomplish. Once the time is up, call them back to discuss their conclusions, findings, and questions. Perhaps you push them back out into rooms for the next task. This way, groups are able to understand the pace and be ready for what’s to come in the main class.
2. Sentence stems. To help your students understand how to talk to one another, send them into their breakout rooms with sentence stems or sentence starters. You don’t want to pop into a breakout room and have complete silence. Often, students just don’t know where to begin. Sentence stems can help them understand expectations and give them the language to get started.
3. Separate digital rooms links. When I’m using Google Meet and need longer group work time, I make separate meetings for each group and reuse these links throughout the project/class. This allows me to open all the rooms and have them available on one computer by resizing the window. I can use a Chrome extension like Mute Tab, which allows me to mute various meets and focus on one at a time. This also allows me to record the meetings.
To allay any privacy concerns, we only post and record within our learning management system, and videos are not viewable outside our domain. We also don’t require that students turn on their cameras. Some teachers only post the videos for students who were absent, but I post them for every class.
4. Volunteers. One of the best realizations to come out of being virtual is that I now understand how many people want to help out in my classroom. It might not be feasible for all lessons, but if a teacher is working with younger students or if this is a topic that you believe really needs some support and outside presence, perhaps enlisting volunteers (student family members, college students, teacher candidates, former students) can create a different kind of space and conversation. They can be people who are part of the conversation—perhaps they’re getting interviewed as an expert for a project—or they are there to help with some of the facilitation to free students to focus on the content.
5. Shared gray space. A shared document owned by the teacher has been one of my keys to success. I love using Jamboard or Google Slides for this. I’ve found that one of the best uses of this is taking advantage of the gray space around the edge. If you reduce a slide or Jamboard by 50 percent, gray space appears around the edge. That’s usable space! It just doesn’t appear when you present, but I think of it as being like scratch paper, a great area for notes, or a place to put images or icons for student use.
One concern I hear over and over from teachers of younger students is what to provide them as a tool to use when working collaboratively. A shared slide or Jamboard with draggable icons that can represent their thoughts or contributions in a discussion can be so valuable. Another use may be having a shared sentence stem or template that the students fill in together using the visuals and then explain their ideas when returning to the large group.
6. Project progress tracker. A shared space for tracking the progress of the team can be valuable for teachers when students are in different virtual spaces. If I am the owner of all the trackers, I can have them up while students are in their groups and see as they move their project tasks through to-do, in progress, needs feedback, and done. Having students indicate where they are helps them own their learning, keeps them connected, and shows me as the teacher who is in need of feedback and who may need some support.
7. Jobs. Having specific roles for students is a wonderful way for everyone to understand what’s expected and be part of the process. Be sure to check in with students about these jobs. I find that students will volunteer for the same ones. It’s wonderful to build on student strengths in a team, but it’s also important to help support growth. Whether jobs are by choice or assigned, keep track of which students are in which roles to help ensure that there’s some variety for future breakouts.
Instructional designer Esther Park created a set of roles in Google Slides and Jamboard that apply to a variety of scenarios. In addition, you can have students reflect on their role and how they contributed to the team. My favorite part of a reflection is asking students to give shout-outs to other students on their team for things they did that were helpful or that they learned from. I then share these with each of the students when we meet to review or in an email.
Breakout rooms take time. The process, like everything else in the classroom, takes practice. But if we provide a meaningful process, we can create an atmosphere that values and celebrates student voice and choice.