Preparation Strategies for Stellar Synchronous Language Classes, Part 2

In Part 1 of this post about preparation strategies for synchronous sessions, I wrote about setting up your physical space. But once you’ve set up your rockstar teaching space, it’s time to turn to prepping your virtual environment.

Prepping Your Online Space

Whether you’re using Zoom, Skype, Webex, or some other teleconferencing application, the first step is tailoring its settings to your needs. Since there is a ton to cover and a multitude of articles and application support, I won’t go into many specifics but simply focus on a few features that are common to most of these applications and relevant to language instructors: breakout rooms, screen sharing, and additional spaces.

Breakout Rooms

Breakout rooms represent the best way to facilitate the spontaneous, negotiated interaction required for interpersonal communication. When it comes to options for dividing students into groups, online instructors are, of course, constrained by the limitations of their platform, but the products are evolving rapidly and new features are becoming available. Zoom, for instance, now has three options: (1) assign automatically, which randomly distributes students, (2) assign manually, which allows the instructor to assign students to groups, and its latest addition (3) let participants choose room, which allows students to select and change rooms at will. (This last option is relatively new and will not work unless both you and your students have recently updated their Zoom client.)

Zoom Breakout Room Options
Zoom Breakout Room Options

Knowing your available options and planning before your session begins exactly how you want to pair or group students to best meet the lesson outcomes can save time. Some platforms even allow you to pre-select breakout room groups, if that’s the route you choose to go. Every minute you’re fumbling with settings is another minute your students aren’t engaging with each other or the target language.

Screen Sharing

Another well-known teleconferencing application feature is screen sharing, and a little preparation can go a long way in making your synchronous session screen sharing go smoothly. Getting your settings right is key, but there are other articles and tutorials to help you there. And let’s be honest, we’ve all forgotten to “Share computer sound” at least once, and as embarrassing as was, we survived, right?

But what pre-session prep can we, as language teachers, do for screen sharing? First, closing every app and tab that we don’t need open is a good start. Then, opening each app and tab you do plan to screen share is helpful. This might include various applications, an online dictionary, a target language search engine, or an ongoing vocabulary list you’re maintaining. Most importantly, if you’re planning to play and share streaming video, play it through once before class, so it loads and can play without needing to buffer during your session. And if you’re using that second monitor we discussed in Part 1, remember to arrange your windows strategically. Position whatever you’re likely to be looking at most on the screen or window nearest your webcam so that your students see your face and eyes, instead of the side of your head.

The teleconferencing platform I most frequently use is a robust tool with many features, but staying exclusively within its confines feels stifling. When I expanded my virtual classroom space beyond just my teleconferencing platform, that was a major game-changer for my online teaching. Learning to use additional real-time collaboration tools has opened so many doors, and an interactive session document is central to this strategy.

Additional Meeting Spaces

Prior to each session, I post or share a session-specific accompanying interactive document via my course page in my LMS, and I paste the document link in the Chat window at the beginning of each session, as well. I typically use a Google Doc and include within it everything necessary for that class: lesson objectives, perhaps a checklist of what homework is due, relevant vocabulary or grammar points, discussion prompts, perhaps a rubric I’ll be using to assess that day’s synchronous task, and links to audio or video I plan to share. Not only does this offer me a way of sharing lesson materials with students during class, but it also gives students both a tool for preparing for class and a record of what happened in class, which is useful for everyone, especially those who might be absent.

Perhaps the most valuable benefit of preparing this session document in advance is that I can include discussion prompts and graphic organizers or note-taking tables in this shared document for my students to work on as they work in pairs or groups in their breakout rooms. This allows me to monitor all pairs’ progress in real-time in the document, which in turn informs my decision-making process about which pairs might need me to “drop in” on their breakout room time and which don’t need as much assistance. I can even offer typed messages and feedback into the document using the Comment feature.

Google Docs, of course, are not the only possibility here. Microsoft Office 365 and Word offer similar real-time editing through Sharepoint, and traditional documents aren’t the only option either. Some instructors prefer to prepare and use a shared Slideshow or PowerPoint presentation for their interactive session document, as each pair—or even individual—can work on or within their own slide. Not only that, but working within a slideshow program makes the full-screen sharing of results easy. Still other instructors prefer the interactive app Padlet for hosting collaborative session documents. One of Padlet’s new layouts, called “Backchannel,” is designed for this type of collaboration, and it allows easy content sharing, real-time text commenting, reactions, and voting, and it has an export-to-PDF feature for easy archiving and sharing.

From the perspective of preparation and organization, any of these session document options are a goldmine! They allow objectives, class content, materials, in-class notes, instructions, examples, homework assignments, and even a means of collecting homework to all be housed in a single document that runs parallel to and in conjunction with your synchronous session. Add that to your carefully tailored teleconference application and your carefully prepared physical space from Part 1, and you’ll be ready for your best Synchronous Session yet!

Author: Austin Kaufmann, ESL Instructor and Ed Tech Specialist, Michigan State University