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The Breakout Room in a Box Strategy

When the pandemic started, teachers were inundated with resources. Sources of information for virtual learning were certainly not lacking.  But what teachers didn’t have then (and still don’t have now) is time - Time to research, explore, and implement.  The idea for the “Breakout Room in a Box'' was born from the expressed need by the teachers I work with for ready-made supports that mirror virtually the way teachers facilitate small groups in the classroom. Just add the students and teacher and you will be ready to implement this “Breakout Room in a Box'' strategy on Zoom as is or modify it to make it your own. 

We as teachers (as well as our students) have varying levels of proficiency on Zoom. At this point, you may or may not have ventured into using breakout rooms. If you tried to use breakout rooms during the first half of the 2020-2021 school year, the scenario may have gone somewhat like this: Students are given a problem and set on a task. You pop in and out of the rooms only to find students muted and disengaged, just waiting for the allotted time to run out. Keeping some of these challenges from the Fall in mind, we need to not only rethink how we can make breakout rooms more engaging, but at the same time hold students accountable for their learning. In addition, we also need to support students in making their thinking visible. This is where the interactive features of “Breakout Rooms in a Box” come into play.  Here is an overview of how it works. 

How to Use “Breakout Rooms in a Box” to Support Students

Things to Consider Prior to the Breakout Room Activity

  • Security and Technology: Take the time to familiarize yourself with the  Zoom breakout room features and how to use them. Last Fall, I heard many horror stories of students entering Zoom sessions under another name, annotating on the teacher presentations, etc.  Many of these issues can be addressed proactively just by enabling and disabling the proper settings.  Practice to make sure that you are comfortable with the features you will be using.  Check out the many teacher resources that ASSISTments offers to address any questions that you may have as an instructor about using the ASSISTments platform. 
  • Etiquette: A list of “rules” for students when participating in breakout rooms is essential. Zoom etiquette in virtual learning is just as important as class management is in a face-to-face situation.  A shared list of rules for students is necessary so that everyone knows the expectations and is on the same page.  Here is an ASCD ready-made list or you can include your students in the process of designing your own. 
  • Determine Groups: Be mindful of accommodations, differentiation and comfort level. Unlike the traditional face-to-face classroom where students would be connecting with each other and forming relationships throughout the school year, students in the virtual classroom may feel that their classmates are “strangers”, causing a high level of anxiety for this type of interaction. Always provide an opt-out opportunity. Once groups are created, allow students the time to be comfortable with their groups and don’t change them too often.
  • Assign Student Roles: This is not a new idea, but each student role not only includes a description of the responsibilities for each role, but provides relevant question prompts specific to each role. These question prompts can assist students if they get stuck during the task to support them in remaining productive in their participation with the group. Teachers should give students their own copy of the Roles and Prompt Questions in advance to keep on hand for all breakout room sessions.  When assigning student roles, start with student strengths if you know them, to increase the student’s level of comfort. The Interactive Student Role Checklist will take it one step further in holding students accountable for fulfilling their assigned role. The checkboxes on this interactive shared slide align to the responsibilities of each role and require students to check off and track their progress throughout the breakout room session. In order to further model and practice the entire process, have students participate in a trial run “Mini Task”. I have included a sample  “Mini Task”  which will also serve to help students in learning how to upload a picture on ASSISTments. At the end of the “Mini Task” model and review the Reflection Feedback Form.
  • Create and/or Assign ASSISTments Task and Shared Group Slide: There are many options here depending on the task and the need. The submission process may also vary. I recommend that all students complete their work through ASSISTments, even if they are presenting their results on a group slide. Individual work on ASSISTments will make student thinking visible, keep them engaged, and will hold them individually accountable for completing the work. Here is a sample  ASSISTments assignment with its accompanying shared group slide questions. Don’t forget to include a reasonable time limit. The shared group slides and checklist will hold them accountable to the responsibilities of their assigned role in the group. For some additional ideas on how to use ASSISTments, check out Leverage ASSISTments to Support Distance Learning. 

Game Day Breakout Room Steps to Consider

  • Set the Stage: After checking that all Zoom features and  ASSISTments assignments are appropriately set, review the instructions and the task with students. Get them excited about it!
  • Monitor Student progress: Pop in and out of the breakout rooms to assess individual student progress and group dynamics. Have the Assignment Report open to assess student progress on the problem set in real-time.  You have the option of being an active participant by checking-in verbally with each group, or a passive participant by just being a “fly on the wall” observing with your mic muted and video off. The group slides, interactive checklist and reflection feedback form will also provide important information on the level of student engagement and student progress. 
  • Class Discussion/Share Out: In some instances, you may want each group to present their findings to the entire class in order to promote some discussion and debate after the breakout activity or you may choose to collect Group/Individual documents for discussion later. The opportunity to discuss results is where the magic occurs, and also an area that has been difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. This is where the ASSISTments platform really shines! I would highly recommend not skipping the Class Discussion/ Share Out step!
  • Feedback Form: Make sure to allow students time to complete and submit the Reflection Feedback Form at the conclusion of the activity. This will give students an opportunity to reflect on their learning and is the final piece of the puzzle. This form provides students with a “voice” in how they interacted with their assigned Student Role, their group and the math content. This will not only help to enhance learning, but also provide you as the instructor important insight into possible misconceptions and difficulties. 

Follow-up Steps to Consider

  • Analyze Data: Use the Reflection Feedback Form Data to identify issues, problems and areas in need of improvement, both in the activity itself as well as in content misconceptions. Use the ASSISTments Assignment and Student Details Report data to identify gaps in understanding and to guide your future instruction. 
  • Provide Group and/or individual Feedback: From all of the data collected during the activity, you can provide targeted individual, small group or whole class feedback on student work.