7 Ways to Use Breakout Rooms

If you’re like me, you’re teaching online this fall (and for awhile). Breakout rooms are the only thing that makes me feel like I’m not lecturing all day or wasting time having only one kid speak for a moment, waiting for them to turn on their mic, asking for responses into the void, and so on. This and small group times where only a few kids come at designated times for instruction are the ways I’m managing to feel like an effective teacher again and enjoy interacting with kids. Below are 7 ways I’m using breakout rooms. Scroll down for 9 recommendations I have for growing responsibility in your learners in this space.

Turn and Talks

Turn and Talk is a strategy in the classroom all the time. You can have students turn and share their goal for the day, share what they did at the end of a lesson, share what stuck out to them in the story, share which math strategy they used, share a golden line of their writing, and more. Once students are comfortable with how the transition to breakout rooms works, you can just randomly place students with a partner and have them share. Will they all share the same with everyone? No, but do this often enough and they’ll end up with friends sometimes and be exposed to new people at other times. This may be more beneficial to you than it was in the classroom because they can’t only gravitate towards their friends and then just chat about this funny video they saw yesterday.

1-1 Conferences

I like to keep most people in the main room and then I can pull other students 1-1. I can keep my main room quiet by turning off their microphones, videos, and chat. If they want to to conference with me, they can raise their hand. I also tried keeping the chat open where they could only type “help” if they needed me and were stuck, but that wasn’t successful all the time. If I use another device, I can actually ALSO be in the main room and projecting directions to those students there if they are stuck. This simulates the experience of a classroom in that they could look at my easel or look at the whiteboard and see the directions for their work period for the day. Conferences are my jam. I love meeting 1-1 with students, and I love being able to meet with students in this environment. Because it is only me, students are usually pretty open and serious, willing to read aloud writing, hold something up to me, and talk to me.

Groupwork – Cooperative or Collaborative

Groupwork can still happen in these spaces. When my students are in breakout rooms, they’re given all the same permissions as presenters so they can share their screen, present a digital whiteboard, talk, show video, chat in the group chat and our everyone chat. If students are working on individual work at that time for cooperative learning, they can compare. One person could share their screen while others looks on. If they’re working in a collaborative document, one person can share their screen and everyone can see what everyone else is doing simultaneously. Sometimes students prefer to just see one another and have the google doc (or other shared document/slide/site) open in a split screen format. This works well.

Book Clubs

Getting students to discuss whole class can often be difficult even in person, especially with older students. Book clubs or discussion groups focused on an article of choice related to your content can be great ways to foster communication around a shared text. I like creating book clubs based on choice more than level, although level should be a consideration to steer kids in the right direction. You can limit some students’ choices to a few within their instructional grasp. Choice is a powerful motivator, so don’t underestimate students once they’re at a level where they can decode enough to work their way through something. Students will usually choose something they know they’ll find success with. I talk more about how I set up book clubs in other blog posts.

Partner Work/Tiny Groups

Reading and Writing Partners are a throughline of the workshop model. While I would prefer to maintain partners for a unit and build that relationship with one person, it’s better that they talk to someone. Online, I have found groups of 3 to be beneficial. Often, there are random disconnections that make the speaker get cut off or suddenly there’s no one to listen to them anymore. If there’s a group of 3, a disconnection doesn’t completely halt the conversation. They can move past it. It is time consuming for me to create these groups to be the exact same each time especially when attendance is still sometimes flaky or a kid just isn’t available because they’re in a group for speech or OT or SPED services. I try to keep connections alive between students and use their book clubs or guided reading groups as touchstones for people they could more easily partner with. As I move through the year, I know kids better and can place them with partners that with lift one another’s reading and writing.

Partner or Group Games

Math games are my absolute favorite part of doing stations in a math workshop class. I find it so fun to learn new games, make games, buy games… I have written a couple blog posts on number sense activities, math games I’ve bought that worked out well for me, and structures for math games I’ve made with popsicle sticks, index cards, cups, etc. There are still some games that work well virtually through a screen. If each partner has a deck of cards, hundreds charts, counters, dice, and dominoes, there are tons to play. War games where you’re flipping over one card at a time and comparing it to your partner’s through a screen works well. You can add those cards together, multiply those cards, compare those numbers. You can also pull two or three cards and see who can make the biggest number using the two cards they pulled. Using my document camera or a different webcam set up, I can share cards laid out in a grid (like boggle with letters) and students can make number sentences. This would work for games like Tribulation or I Spy. Guess the number on Hundreds Charts still works with partners. Other card games such as UNO work if both people have decks.

Choice Work Rooms

Allow students some choice in their work environment. In the physical classroom, you as the teacher decide if today will be a silent work period, a quiet hum, a day with lots of partner talk and editing, or a day with music in the background. Often, there is some fluidity in a workshop model (my classroom usually aimed towards quiet hum but different corners were sometimes more or less active than others). You can let students choose a breakout room where the environment is agreed upon by the members. For example, you can set up a room that’s silent, a room that is seeking editors, a room for people who need to brainstorm and share ideas, etc. Those are different environments and you can create rooms for each choice.

My Recommendations

Think about the progression of breakout room responsibility:

  1. Start with shorter time frames with just one or two people
  2. Are you able to invite another teacher, admin, tech support or IA into your online classroom to move between groups and monitor the first couple of times you try it out?
  3. Give them short sentence frames to start out and/or very specific, short prompts. One day, I had them share their favorite picture book from the first week of school. Another day, when we were working on our personal narratives, I had them share one memory item from around their house. These prompts only took a moment and could be wrapped up quickly.
  4. Give them clear tasks with an end goal for their groupwork. I think PBLs can and do work great online with ongoing tasks and work bleeding from one day into the next. Starting out, though, think about an end product for their groupwork for that day: a google slide that must have their list of 5 topics, 3 number sentences that add up to 16, 4 connections between events, etc.
  5. Teach them how to use the tools available and allow them to figure it out. Once I showed students how to share their screen, I had 2nd graders showing books on RAZ Kids and reading aloud to their partner from the screen. They took turns reading different pages just as we had done in small groups.
  6. Set up partners and groups first. If you can allow choice where students can move to different breakout rooms of their own volition or choose partners, let that be a later step once students have proven responsibility.
  7. Debrief with students and talk about what worked and what didn’t. Allow students to share the actions that were positive or negative vs. calling out specific students as helpers or problems. Set goals as a class for the next time you use breakout rooms.
  8. Set up a system for students to ask for help if they’re running into trouble. I had students type “help” in a private chat with me or in the “everyone” chat, and I would know I needed to go to that group immediately.
  9. I have different settings available in my “main room” versus breakout rooms. I can be much more restrictive in the main room. If there are kids that are consistently pushing boundaries, keep them in the main room with fewer controls/settings available. For my platform, I know I can record the main room but not breakout rooms, so I can also record the main room small group and that provides some accountability as well.

P.S. If you’re curious, I use the platform BBCU – Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. There are many platforms out there. My school also has Google Meet available, and I’m excited to see the updates as they get rolled out.


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