Backchannel in the Middle School

Last week our Science Head of Department was ‘lecturing’ to her Grade 8 class, reviewing the different parts of plants. In addition to providing a cloze-type graphic organizer, Andrea decided to open up a backchannel using Today’s Meet  for the students. After briefly explaining what a backchannel was and how the students might use it, she started on her lecture. In her own words:

When I was first exposed to back channel chat at a conference last year, I couldn’t really think how I might use it in class. A year later, with my 8th graders happily typing and inking away on their tablet PC’s  I was eager to try it and see what the possibilities might be.


I decided to use Today’s Meet in a class that was more of a lecture style. Students would be responsible for listening to my lecture and filling in blanks about our Plants topics Roots and Stems. I was curious to see how it would go and my initial idea was that it would be a way for me to check their understanding. I instructed them that if they had a question they could type it there and I would stop to check every 5 minutes or so and answer any questions. I also mentioned that if they heard me say anything interesting that wasn’t on the notes they were given, they could add that too.


The kids signed in and each said hello and I was curious to see if they would stay on topic or not. Interestingly when I first stopped to check, there were questions and comments about my speed (I was talking too fast for some) and even better, some students had already started to answer questions that had been posted by others! I immediately thought that this would be a great extension for kids who are better listeners and quicker at lecture type activities. I taught them how to use the ‘@’ symbol to do a direct reply so that if they were replying to only one student, it would be easy to see who they were answering.


We continued on and they stayed focused. I prompted them to find websites and post them in the back channel if they found things that they thought might be helpful. Many of them did. I was very happy to see the majority of students flipping back and forth between the note and the chat with ease-it seemed to work well for most of them!


I was also amazed that one of my quietest students, who won’t raise his hands in class was asking loads of questions of me and his peers on the back channel.


It was a great experiment and helped me to guide my lecture during the process which was great. Most students were eager to use it again, after all chat is an interface they are VERY familiar with! Today’s meet also can be copied and pasted into a word or One Note document so that a transcript of the session could be available for students too.

After the lesson, we discussed the positives:

  • The transcript is a huge plus for EAL students.
  • The students really got in to helping one another.
  • For the vast majority of students, they were in a comfortable environment (IM’ing is a favorite past time of most students!) and adapted easily to the ‘academic’ nature of the task.

And the possibilities:

  • Student can supplement the discussion with links.
  • The backchannel can be used as a differentiation tool: it can be used to extend the strong students (by finding additional content/support/links) and to support the weaker student.
  • It can also be used to accommodate different learning modalities.
  • If you collect data on learning styles (such as Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence or Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences), assigning different dedicated scribes with different learning styles might capture a more complete picture of the lecture.

Do you use a backchannel in your classes? What effective strategies have you discovered?

Image Credit: What’s Your Backchannel by debs (CC BY NC SA on Flickr)


It’s a shame that we’re just finishing up Quadratics Functions in my IB Math SL course today. After being pointed to the Radio Lab podcasts from NPR by my buddy Shane, I found this video on parabolas in the real world. 

It would be interesting to start the unit next year by doing the same pendulum experiment, showing them this video and then discussing the imagery that is shown.

If you were going to center an entire unit on quadratics around a single concept/idea/question, what would it be? Using the MYP holy triumvarate of Significant Concepts, Unit Questions and Area of Interaction focus, this video compels me to think of universal laws (SC), “Why are parabolas used in art and architechture?” (UQ), and Human Ingenuity (AOI).

(For the non-MYP crowd out there, what would be your theme of your parabolas unit?)


Mr. Hamada – Master of the Obvious

You mean I can tag individual posts in my Google Reader? Why did it take me so long to see this?  So, as I’m reading dy/dan or The Number Warrior or Math Stories and am inspired by their ideas, I can 

From My Google Readerimmediately tag them with the appropriate class name so that I can find it again when I need it? 

Did anybody else know about this?  Master of the Obvious, indeed…

Understanding GPS

 The Pre

We’ve reviewed Cartesian coordinates, we’ve learned the distance formula, we’ve talked about transferring the Cartesian plane onto the surface of the Earth and coming up with latitude and longitude, we’ve studied SOH-CAH-TOA, we’ve talked about bearings, and we’ve found the distance between two points on the Earth using proportions and a bit of trig if necessary.

The Setup

I book two lessons in the computer lab. In that time, there are four tasks that need to get done:

  1. We look at the idea of trilateration and how we can pinpoint an exact location using three circles. I’ve created a simple GSP activity to illustrate this.
  2. With their new-found knowledge, the students get the chance to find a missing hiker, using page 2 of the same GSP file.
  3. A simple WebQuest to learn about how GPS works.
  4. Some problems for students to answer to reinforce.

    GSP – Trilateration – (For some reason, I can’t upload this file. If you want it, let me know and I’ll email it to you.)

Check-up and Learning the Tools

The next class is spent clarifying any questions and making sure they can answer the questions in task four. We then spend about 30 minutes getting to know our GPS receiver. I have the Garmin eTrex Vista, so I downloaded a .pdf version of the manual and snipped out the relevant screenshots. We go over how to create and name waypoints, how to find waypoints, how to measure the distance between two points, how to use the compass, and any other questions that might come up.

The Field Work

Armed with our knowledge of how our GPS receivers work (I normally borrow as many as I can from other teachers) and divided into small groups, it’s time to get outside and do some GPS-ing.

I’ve come up with four challenges that increase in difficulty. They use their GPS receivers to take measurements so that they can find the distances later.

  1. Using a right triangle to measure the distance across a ‘river’. I do this with each group, step-by-step to ensure they
  2. Using a similar technique to check the length of our soccer pitch.
  3. Use the law of sines (which I introduce them to but do not go over in any detail other than to present the formula) and given points to estimate the distance to a building off-campus.
  4. Use any method to estimate the distance from our flag pole to a different building off-campus.

    GPS and Triangulation

The groups can finish taking measurements for task 1 and 2 in a lesson. They then complete 3 and 4 during the next lesson.

Total time: 5 days (1 hour periods/day).

The students seem to enjoy the activity. Most of them have seen GPS systems (who hasn’t these days?) but have never actually used a handheld unit. None of them have ever used a compass to find direction. If you don’t have access to GPS receivers, you could probably get away with this activity using compasses and trundle wheels. But it won’t be nearly as cool…

Dustboat Geocache