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“How often during a f2f meeting do you want to whisper a sidebar or pose a question?” asked Megan Stacey, an administrator from Forest Hills Schools in Ohio and a member of the Dublin-Dallas Cohort.

The response from members of the cohort– all the time!

Those of us who have been learning from one another online find that when we are back in our face to face meetings, we still want that community of learning around us. It can happen in the back channel, as a group of teachers discussed recently on the Dublin-Dallas cohort’s NING.

Their discussion,which also veered off to discussing middle school students back channeling, shows the pitfalls that can occur as well as the benefits of creating space for simultaneous conversations.

“I often cannot keep my thoughts to myself in a meeting either! ” said Trisha Underwood, a Fellow from the Forest Hills group. “I like the idea of it allowing people to stay more focused due to information synthesis. That being said, although I am definitely a multi-tasker, I find my mind wondering away from the speaker to pay attention to the chat, sometimes missing out on chunks of information from the speaker.”

Joe Stahl, a teacher from West Clermont Schools in Ohio, weighed in, too:

“I totally agree. I love using backchanneling because as a teacher I am always talking or whispering to the person next to me about what is happening or of a thought that just came to me. I think backchanneling also allows people to stay more focused because we are able to start synthesizing the information rather than just listening and not being able to talk.”

Danielle Cripe, a teacher from Forest Hills,  wondered whether her seventh-graders could handle back channeling, but she says:

“I can see how the multi-tasking can be overwhelming because we are so used to saying “pay attention” or “eyes up here so I know you’re listening” and things like that. But I think we have to accept that our students multi-task daily anyway… as do we. So, if we can get them to use backchanneling in a positive way and type out some of those thoughts they have about the content/classroom activities, it would be more beneficial than students daydreaming about their weekend activities or what not.”

And from Hampton Roads Academy, Ashley Diette acknowledges the benefits but points out a concern faced by many:

“It is often difficult with not all students having a computer available each day during class, but proves to be useful when set-up properly.”

Trisha, though, shifts back to the benefits of taking a chance:

“I have enjoyed being a backchanneling participant during PD sessions. I love being able to “hear” what is on other’s minds. The conversations that evolve are often very insightful.”

Gail Corder, from Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas, jumped into the conversation to share and then ask:

“I love this discussion. I never even thought of setting up backchanneling during staff development. What a great idea! I’m definitely going to try that. Add to my list of gotta do’s.
The other day, we had a great speaker for the upper school students. It was David Relin, who co-wrote “Three Cups of Tea” with Greg Mortenson. Fascinating presentation. I didn’t have my laptop with me, but I wanted to tweet out several of his remarks from my phone. But I was afraid to, because there were many parents and board members sitting around me, and I was afraid they would think I was texting and not paying attention. We’re definitely not a culture used to backchanneling.

Should I have done it anyway?”

Renee Hawkins, from Garrison Forest School in Owings Mill, Maryland, offered specifics about which tools might work and how they handle back channeling there. She also wrote about it on her own blog:

“TodaysMeet is the one I’ve heard used most often. If you’re a Moodle school, the iChat activity is useful and I believe you can give students a score. The blog The Technorate Teacher offers other apps for the backchanneling as well as some tips for running a smooth backchanneling event. We use FirstClass for email and you can run a backchannel in the IM feature and capture the transcript for reference later.”

It’s great watching teachers share their thoughts this year, whether to big picture, philosophical questions or the  more practical “is it possible” kinds of scenarios. And I learn, too.

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Susan Carter Morgan

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