Connecting Students with Online Book Clubs & VoiceThread

Part of my language arts program is the incorporation of student led Book Clubs (similar to Literature Circles). Over the past year however, the process has lost its luster for the students and I. But kids are social, and they learn best with each other.

After one of my discussions about the benefits of our ongoing Idea Hive classroom collaboration, my school superintendent suggested creating a collaborative project with a teacher new to the process in our board.  With that in mind, and the need to start my students into book club, VoiceThread (VT) was a good tool to use with Marc Westra’s intermediate class from Brussels P.S., located 11 km. away.

After sharing our sets of novels with both classes (another benefit of collaboration), Marc and I created the groups based on student’s book choice. We designed a project outline and rubric, and aimed for an equal number of members from each school (groups of 4 or 5). On day 1, students met via Skype to say hello and share a very brief prediction about their novel.  Using a shared Google doc, members created a reading schedule and assigned a member responsible for uploading the week’s image.

On a 5-day cycle, students read their agreed upon pages and recorded their rough notes (useful for ensuring the students were on track). They recorded on day 4, and listened and reflected on day 5. This continued for a 5 week period. While assessing their work and providing feedback, I’d look over their rough notes before listening to their recordings.  It was clear there was value using VT beyond the usual benefits of student collaboration.

As the weeks progressed, the nervousness began to disappear and students’ oral communication skills developed. Some of the fast-speaking, nervous student slowed down and confidently supported their opinions.  Instead of answering only questions posted by their classmate group members, they addressed those asked by members from the partner school. Those students who initially didn’t take the recording seriously, improved as presenters of information, after listening to members who “raised the bar” so to speak.  As the process continued, their nervous giggles diminished, and they clearly cared about how they sounded.

I suggested to those students who tended to summarize instead of discussing theme, to re-listen to specific member’s previous recordings for a great examples. Without VT, the alternative would have been to ask that member for their written notes and reread them.  Would they do this?  Not likely.

Students who struggle with writing, particularly spelling, sounded insightful and articulate in their recorded posts.  Written text didn’t strangle their thoughts.  Students elaborated and clarified details left out of their rough written notes.  When I didn’t have to struggle with poor handwriting or conventions in order to understand my students, only listen to their voice, I realized the true power of this tool.

Students recognize the advantage of book clubs as they gain deeper understanding from other group members.  When asked to reflect on using VT in order to work with another school, they had some pretty insightful opinions.

A:  What are the advantages of using VT to work with members from another school?

– if a member is sick, they don’t miss the meeting.  They can post the next day, and listen to what we said in our recordings.
– since you don’t talk to your partner during the week, they can’t spoil the book for you if they read ahead.
– makes reading more exciting by “meeting” people we’ll be going to high school with.
– it’s more challenging, but fun.

B:  Disadvantages

– can’t ask clarifying questions right away.  We can email them, but sometimes we don’t hear back right away.
– if our schedules change, the person responsible for uploading the image that week might not have done it when we’re ready to record (so we do it).
– we don’t know them well enough so I worried that if I was critical, they might think I was being mean.
– sometimes the member didn’t edit their recording, so you couldn’t hear it very well.

C:  Aside from learning different points of view, how did using VT to listen to your members’ comments help you with your learning?

– I could re-listen to the recording and add what they said to my notes.  Sometimes I just don’t want to bug people to keep repeating what they’ve said when I don’t understand at first.
– students don’t want to sound bad when they record, so they practice what they say before they record.  They sound clear in their post; there’s no stuttering like there sometimes is when you talk to people.
-we learned a new presentation strategy.

D:  What would you do differently if using VoiceThread again for Book Club?

– the day after listening, go back and look for the recording of a group member who was away on the scheduled day. Not only because there might be something important, but it would be nice for those students who were away to have the feeling that their work matters just as much as everyone else’s (Jadyn’s comment is a gem!)
–use the webcam to record so you members can see your expressions.

E: How can we improve the process?

-start the post next week by first clarifying any misunderstandings you heard the week before from other members, or your own.
-have a mini-discussion with our class member before recording so you can fix any misunderstandings first.

The students are keen to repeat the process with different books and new partners.  So, with their advice, we’ll make a few changes to the process.
–  provide students with a graphic organizer to make note of any misunderstandings and highlight who missed the “meeting” so they can listen the next day.
– structure student time for a mini f2f meeting with their class member.

Using VoiceThread to create collaborative school-school book clubs helps students developed skills in reading, oral communication, collaboration and problem solving.  Listening while assessing their work was a true pleasure.

And Marc’s thoughts on this experience?

This was a learning experience for all of us. The students felt responsible to their group to keep up (rather than the usual fleeting, “oh well”) and made a more concerted effort to keep up. One of the biggest successes was the fact that those students who could not get work completed at school could work from home.

The learners were very excited about the experience of working with students they didn’t know as they were able to learn about different sets of experiences and background knowledge. If provided with the opportunity to be a part of another experience this again, they would prefer more frequent SKYPE calls to clarify meaning in real-time to elaborate on ideas and opinions.

Overall this was a great learning experience for all of us: I was able to offer my learners an experience using technology that focussed on their strengths (oral communication by recording their ideas) rather than their weaknesses. The students became competent in a program (VoiceThread) they can choose to use again in other subject assignments.