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Open Up the Backchannel

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

COVID-19 is causing all educators to reach deep into their repertoires and embrace all manner of methods in order to effectively reach learners.

Those who have never embraced technology find themselves thrust into the center of the fray and bewildered by the options, while some who have previously dabbled, now reach gratefully for the trusted and familiar tools. Even digital natives find themselves contending with realities that challenge their expertise due to the ubiquitous need of what used to be considered cutting edge practices. 

With next to no time to prepare, we ask ourselves:

Synchronous or asynchronous? Packets or video lessons? From Zoombombing to inequitable access to technology, there are deeper challenges we face now as educators that, although not always new, are fully on display since every moment of contact with learners has become that much more precious. The self-talk continues:

How do we ensure students know we care? 

How do we maximize learning without downplaying the precarious and sometimes dangerous lives to which students return when the lesson ends? 

Are we moving too fast? Too slow?

Is our teaching resulting in any learning at all?

Dr. Christopher Emdin’s reality pedagogy surfaces as an approach no longer pigeon holed for urban educators or specific communities. We currently find ourselves meaningfully drawing from many of its tenets, like Curation, Co-teaching and Cogenerative dialogues, to cooperate as one discipline with a common goal: humanizing our practice. Still for many of us, this collaboration is with other professionals, rather than the students themselves as is called for by the aforementioned framework.

So, at a time that we are farther apart physically, how do we get even closer to our students to derive these powerful insights about “what works?” Take it from a virtual learning OG, there is one tool that has eviscerated all others of which I cannot overstate the value - the backchannel. A backchannel is a means of communication among learners that occurs concurrently with the lesson. That’s right - encourage students to talk to one another during instruction. It could be about the content, or not. Their job is to be honest and share their thoughts and needs in real time, as they arise.

Firstly, when students are in dialogue they are constructing meaning and teaching one another. This is often undervalued in the physical classroom due to the traditional belief that instructors should be in control of the class. Rather than restricting the underlife of the classroom, invite it, and ensure the space is hospitable to student teaching and learning. 

On a digital platform, this might be performed through a chat function as the lesson unfolds, or asynchronously on a shared document after or while viewing some media. For those using analog instruction, you might ask students to use the last page of the packet to complete sentence stems like: “I want...I think… I hope… I feel... “ to be shared on a conference call at the end of each week as the instructor takes time to withhold input and listen as students lead.

This information opens up a third-space for learners, and keeps us, the instructors, responsive to students by helping us acknowledge the real concerns of students for future instructional adjustments. With the backchannel as a structure, it is inevitable that student leaders will be groomed as co-teachers who not only influence instruction, but design and execute it.

As we embrace content and methods pertinent to the students, we center their voices creating a boundless learning environment where their expertise and very humanity can be sustained.

COVID-19 has changed our reality forever - but it’s up to us to make that change for the better.

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