Using the Fish Bowl, along with a Backchannel Discussion

In my MYP Chemistry 10 class, we’re currently in a unit on states of matter and phase changes. Before the unit started, I put some time into making it more rigorous and decided to go down the modeling chemistry pathway. (Blogged about here.) The #modchem discussions we’ve had as a class – in my mind at least – have certainly done just that. But for those of you that teach in the MYP, one thing that must go on are the formal assessments in order to cover all of the criteria adequately. My students are working on a One World project on water purification as a means to solve issues related to water shortages (more on that in a future post, as I’ve got a group working on a service project in Romania too), and we’re preparing for our Criterion C unit test for states of matter and phase changes. In order to afford my students the chance to reach the 5-6 mark band, I need to provide them with opportunities to apply their knowledge in new situations. Additionally, I need to give them a chance to “critically analyse and evaluate information to make judgments supported by scientific understanding.” (From the MYP Guide for Sciences.) As articles of interest come across my Twitter Feed, or my Diigo updates, I tend to save a PDF copy for future use. Well, earlier this fall an article titled “Melting to Keep Cool” showed up in my radar. Perfect!

So I saved the article for the phase changes unit. The plan originally was to just give the students the article and tell them I would give them a 5-6 question from the article on the test. But my school has been working on improving literacy throughout all subject areas, so I worked with our literacy coach to develop some strategies for engaging the students in the article. First, we did a word familiarity chart to help them recognzie words that would show up in the article that have specific meanings – but aren’t necessarily science content. And we did a pre-reading activity to help them prepare for understanding the content. Then they read the article for homework to prepare for a class discussion on Monday.

But the coolest part of it all was a fish bowl! Yesterday in class I started by having students access their prior knowledge on the energy transitions of phase changes, just to get their brains going. Then I gave them about 8 minutes to pre-write the main idea of each section of the article. My hope was that more students would feel comfortable inside the fish bowl if they had spent some time preparing. In order to engage the students outside the fishbowl, I wanted them to participate in a backchannel discussion on TodaysMeet. (Hat Tip to Brian Bennett for that idea to use TodaysMeet for this purpose.) I discussed the idea with my class and shared with them how I use backchanneling at conferences. I also showed them a snippit from this video. (Hat Tip to Tom Whitby for the video.)  I then gave them the groundrules of the fish bowl as follows:


Four people will start inside the fish bowl. Only people in the fish bowl are allowed to talk.

I will offer a guiding question to start, and the conversation can go forward from there. Students in the fish bowl can change the conversation as needed. If necessary, I will ask additional guiding questions.

If you are on the outside, you should be participating in the Backchannel Discussion:

If you want to be in the fish bowl, wait for an appropriate time and tap somebody on the shoulder to switch places.

And my guidelines for the backchannel:

•Please use your actual first name (and last initial if needed).
•You are limited to 140 characters (like a Tweet).
•You are not limited in terms of the number of responses you can make.
•This is a private discussion. Only people with the link will find it, and it will disappear in one week.
•I fully expect your participation to be relevant to the discussion and the article.
•Post responses to the fish bowl, ask questions of each other, and chat about the discussion.
•This is not, however, a personal chat about the weekend, your favorite football team, Urinetown, etc.

So I get ready to start and realize that TodaysMeet is blocked as a ‘chat’ site at my school. Uh. Er. Well. Um. Luckily my students were problem-solvers and suggested a google chat. So they created a chat and started inviting everybody in the class. Problem solved! I’m very appreciative of my resourceful students.

Once the students were settled, I gave them the first question: “Explain whether Phase Change Materials can be a viable option for heating and cooling buildings.” And they’re off! The discussion went in many different directions, including many issues related to a One World project. In fact, one of the students in the backchannel wrote, “#OneWorldProblems” as the fish bowl students were discussing benefits and limitations of the technology. The students were quite engaged with the backchannel. In fact, I think some students got more from that aspect of the discussion compared to the actual fish bowl.

As the conversation went along, there were times when it drifted too far and I’d reel it back in with more guiding questions. The next question I threw at them was, “In the section ‘Cool as Ice’ energy efficiency is discussed, but not because less energy is used. How can something that uses more energy actually have higher energy efficiency?” The discussion kept meandering. Typical, in my mind, to how most discussions jump from one topic to another. I didn’t interject at all for a while, really, except when I threw another guiding question at them.

To finish, I wanted them to revisit the science. So my last question was, “Forget the economics. Is the science legitimate here? Can melting be used to keep cool?” This got them going a bit as they touched on the ice blocks used in Manhattan and the beeswax used to keep buildings cool.

I then had them reflect on the discussion by giving themselves a participation rating from 1-4.  The average student score was 2.75, with only one student selecting “1” for him/herself. I also had the students summarize the discussion. Then I gave the students the following question: “On a scale of 1-4 (4 being the highest), rate the “Fish Bowl” activity from today as a learning activity.” The average score for this was 3.15, with three scores of 2 and the rest 3 or higher (in a class of 20).

In asking the students to offer what went well about the activity, the most popular answer was the backchannel. I think this type of discussion is a perfect example of technology allowing me to complete an activity that really engages students, with no pen-and-pencil analog on the same scale. I had relatively quiet students piping up with great responses in the backchannel. These are students that would likely never volunteer to sit in the fishbowl, yet they were fully engaged.

Next time I do a fishbowl, I’d like to find ways to keep the discussion inside the fishbowl a bit more focused on the issues – and specifically the science. But given the One World requirements of MYP, I actually didn’t mind the meandering conversation that hit some really valid issues about how the science impacts society.

Coming up, I’m planning on sharing a post about a service learning project we’re working in in that same grade 10 MYP Chemistry class. Until then, keep it minty fresh.


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