Like most faculty at BMCC, I was a newbie to synchronous online teaching when classes suddenly went remote last March and had little idea how to “Zoomify” my Spanish classes. For sure, Zoom allows learning to take place in real time, with the live back-and-forth that is so essential to acquiring speaking and listening skills in a foreign language, but many of the collaborative learning activities I’d created for my F2F basic Spanish classes were literally grounded in the physical space of the classroom.
Not only that, but Zoom’s basic functions, by design, place the host (or teacher) entirely at the center. It was easy enough for me to screenshare PowerPoints showing grammar lessons—but I had never taught that way in F2F classes. I could also use the Zoom whiteboard as a substitute chalkboard—but I couldn’t ask students to write on the board, as I did in my physical classroom, since it was tricky and somewhat clunky to have students contributing to the digital board as well. I could toss out oral questions in Spanish to the class, but because of Zoom’s problems with handling many voices at once, it was usually best if I called on students one at a time after they raised their hand. How teacher-centered can you get? It all seemed like a step backward in terms of my teaching practice. A further concern was that my classes met twice a week on Zoom for 100 minutes each; that’s a lot of time to spend with students in a basic language classroom if you, the instructor, are always at the center.
Fast-forward to the present. Thanks to the hive mind of the Internet, YouTube, and my BMCC colleagues, I’ve learned a few ways to push back against the virtual “wall” of Zoom so that more student-to-student exchanges can occur. In this post I’ll describe an activity I frequently use in my Zoom classes that approximates F2F small group work. It involves two elements—Zoom’s breakout rooms + a task presented on a shared Google Slide presentation—and takes advantage of the fact that each slide in the Google presentation is automatically numbered, making it easy to “pair” the slide with the breakout room of the same number.
For example, in this activity, Spanish 106 students worked in breakout rooms to complete sentences using reflexive verbs in Spanish. A “word bank” at the bottom of the Google Slide offered possible answers. Breakout room 1 worked on Google Slide 1, breakout room 2 worked on Google Slide 2, etc.
Screensharing the same slide to the entire class of 20+ students would have allowed no more than a few students to participate. With this activity, all students can potentially contribute to the Google slide inside each breakout room.
Google Slide activities can also make use of the digital tools readily available in the online mode. In this task, for example, students searched for links and photos related to Gabriel García Márquez’s birthplace:
You can also click on the Grid View of Google Slides to see at a glance how the groups are progressing, without having to enter the breakout rooms.
It’s fairly easy to acquire the basics of Google Slides. Here’s a short video (3:42) I made showing how learning activity #1 was put together. For advanced tutorials on how to use Google Slides’ vast array of tools, just google “how to use Google Slides.”
Before sending students to the breakout rooms, I screenshare the activity and do an example or two with them. I then copy the link to the Google Slides in the chat window, making sure I’ve changed the “Share” settings to “Anyone on the Internet with this link can edit.” After I give students the link, I watch the colorful avatars appear on Google Slides, a sign that students are arriving. I then create and open the breakout rooms, usually with three students per room, and instruct students to go to the slide that matches the number of their breakout room (I reiterate this in a broadcasted message once the students are in their breakout rooms). While students are working on the activity, I try to visit each breakout room, just as I would small groups in a F2F class. After the groups have finished (or the majority of them), we go back to the main room and I screenshare one of the Google Slides to review it as a group.
That’s the activity in a nutshell. I’d like to end, however, by acknowledging that using breakout rooms in an instructional mode, with or without Google Slides, is somewhat of an advanced “move” on Zoom. I don’t want to downplay the challenges. It’s not a given that you can easily substitute breakout rooms in your Zoom classes for F2F small group work. As always on Zoom, you have to contend with a new set of issues that arise simply because you’re in this virtual space. For example, because you can’t overhear what’s happening in each group, you have to enter and exit the breakout rooms one by one to engage with students and make sure everyone is on track. Each room has to establish its own dynamic—there’s no sense of what the other groups are doing, unlike in a F2F classroom, where students can pick up on the vibes in the room. Students using smartphones often don’t have complete functionality on Google Slides unless they download the app. In short, there will be new digital-space-related challenges when you use breakout rooms, and you have to be prepared for them. I’ve been using breakout rooms since the fall semester, and I’m still working on my game.
My overall impression, however, is that despite the bumps on the road for everyone, most students like to work together in that shared space. Over the course of the semester, as Google Slides via breakout rooms become more routine for you and the students, they can turn into the main way to foster student-to-student interactions in your classroom. By using them, you’ll not only be working toward a learning outcome, but you’ll also be creating a more collaborative and communal spirit in that strange new teaching space we’ve been inhabiting for the past year on Zoom.
Prof. Carson’s Google website with selected Google Slide activities from SPN105, SPN106 and SPN211W classes can be found here.
 First, open your BMCC Google Drive account, which has unlimited storage. It has Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Forms, Google Sheets and more. Click on this link to a webpage set up by E-learning for more information about opening your BMCC Google account, or contact E-learning directly at email@example.com.