Democratizing the Classroom: Using Technology so Everyone Has a Voice

When I committed to a middle grades humanities teaching position at a Washington, DC, independent school in the spring of 2020, I immediately started daydreaming about curriculum development, text selections, and robust class discussions rooted in shared question-asking. My new school’s progressive philosophy—which emphasizes co-learning between teachers and students, engaged and just citizenship, creativity and flexibility to meet student needs and interests, and true admiration and respect for the wholeness of who children are—aligned closely with my own teaching values and pedagogy, and it was exciting to consider what I might be able to contribute to the curriculum and program.
It soon became clear, however, that 2020-2021 would be a very different school year; we were going to start the year online, and I needed to figure out how we would go about connecting with each other, texts, and history in a distance-learning classroom.
I didn’t end up stepping into a physical classroom until April 2021, but by then I had learned that holding the deep, engaging, thoughtful conversations that I daydreamed about was possible over Zoom. More than that, online discussions democratized participation by providing more opportunities for students to offer ideas, ask questions, and make connections. What I saw was that students had more opportunities online than they often do in the classroom to communicate and connect in ways that felt personally comfortable. Now, as I prepare for the 2021-2022 school year and a return to full-time in-person instruction, I am thinking about how to transfer the lessons I learned about the democratizing nature of those online discussions into my in-person classroom.

Entering the Discussion

This past winter, as my co-teacher and I met with our students online, we used the barn-raising discussion framework to structure three days of in-depth discussions for our sixth graders about Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel, The Giver. It’s a framework I’ve used for in-person class, but I wasn’t sure how it would work online. In barn-raising, an individual’s personal line of inquiry becomes the responsibility of the group. Your question becomes our question—and collective knowledge leads to deeper understanding for all.
Through these discussions, students considered the function of roles and responsibilities in the society in The Giver, authorial decision-making by Lowry, and the protagonist Jonas’ development as a dynamic character in a static world. Using their text annotations, students prepared discussion notes ahead of time. On the days of the discussions, my teaching partner and I muted ourselves and turned off our screens. In response, 27 sixth graders managed three different 45-minute discussions. Over the course of those three days, every student participated in at least one of the discussions as a speaker, and every student demonstrated careful listening through their use of nonverbal gestures over video and comments and questions in the Zoom chat and on our online discussion platforms. The expanded tools of our online classroom ultimately ended up increasing students’ opportunities to express their thinking and connect with their peers in discussions.
One comment a student posted in a Zoom chat during those discussions about The Giver has stayed with me. The student, who didn’t often participate in full group discussions, shared a critical insight about Lowry’s dystopian world. She wrote of the book, “Building onto [my classmates], I noticed lots of optional responsibilities in our world became rules in their world.” Her comment pointed our conversation in a new direction, helping us to see how the dystopian world of the novel unfolded slowly precisely because it was familiar to us. How lucky we were, I thought, that we were having this discussion in a format where this student had a comfortable pathway to share her insight.
It is essential that students come to see that discussions, like the one described above, are equally about speaking and listening. And students need the opportunity to practice building their capacities as both speakers and listeners. Developmentally, early adolescence is an important time to do this work with young people who are seeking increased independence, developing more complex peer bonds, and increasing their capacity for empathy while also experiencing a wave of egocentrism.

Improving Practices

To support students in expressing their own ideas while also meaningfully considering the perspectives and contributions of others, I’ve developed a set of practices that I plan to expand on this year through more real-time pathways that amplify student voices and invite participation.  
Student goal-setting: I’ll share a list of speaking and listening practices and ask students to select one to focus on for a particular discussion. Through feedback, suggestions, or specific goals, I can guide students on which discussion skill they might want to practice. Making the list available throughout the year can encourage students to try different practices depending on their personal growth and preferences. With the fifth and sixth graders I teach, I often start with this list:
  • Look for opportunities to share by volunteering an original idea, question, or connecting point at least once.
  • If you’ve spoken more than twice in the discussion, share the air by inviting a new voice into the conversation.
  • Keep a piece of paper and something to write with in front of you. Take notes on the conversation.
  • Challenge yourself to learn from your peers. Focus on asking at least one clarifying or extending question.
Preparation notes: I’ll offer guided prewriting in preparation for a discussion to allow students  time to freely engage with the discussion questions and get a sense of their own stance. By collecting these notes by hand or capturing them in an online discussion board, I can see their thought process regardless of whether they decide to speak during the discussion.
Structured conversations: Through professional development, graduate school, Project Zero, and the School Reform Initiative, I’ve been introduced to discussion protocols and thinking routines that support the use of structured conversations in the classroom. Because protocols emphasize roles, rules, and timing, they provide a clear pathway for students to journey into meaningful discussions with each other. I’ll often introduce students to structured discussions through Microlabs, in which each student in the small group has 1-2 minutes to respond to a series of teacher-provided questions. I like that I can start with one or two questions, and a shorter amount of speaking time, to allow students the opportunity to practice being the speaker and being the listener for a set amount of time.
Feedback and reflections: I’ll have students reflect on their speaking and listening goal work. I’ll ask them to note how their thinking shifted from their initial discussion preparation work to their understanding of the topic at the end of the discussion. I’ll solicit feedback about what worked and didn’t work about the discussion structure, and I’ll ask what questions students have about the topic at the end of the conversation.
As we return to an in-person model, I’ll be thinking about how to set up the physical space for our class discussions so that students have more access points to the conversation. Prewriting and thinking on online discussion boards such as Padlet and Google Jamboard provided a record of our thinking last year because we left the virtual chalk-talk spaces open during discussions for students to reference, to contribute new ideas, and to respond to their peers’ ideas in writing. Perhaps we’ll use those tools again, or we’ll turn them analog by distributing sticky notes on which students can write and pass notes to us and their peers with questions and connections they aren’t ready to speak aloud. My co-teacher and I also plan to transcribe and distribute discussions, our 2021-2022 version of the Zoom chat, allowing students to annotate the transcripts after the fact and revisit the conversation with fresh eyes.
I want to make sure that, online or in-person, the next student in my classroom who wants to contribute to the discussion but isn't ready to speak up has the space to do so. If I do that, we all might learn something.
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Lauren Lewis

Lauren Lewis is a humanities teacher at Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC.