The Unmute Project
Updated: Nov 21
It was funny for awhile.
That awkward moment when someone starts talking and you have to interrupt her, saying, "You're on mute!" She rolls her eyes, leans forward a bit in concentration, and the red microphone icon disappears. She sighs and begins again, "As I was saying …"
That was back in April or May, when we didn't know how long this would last. While this phenomenon is happening less and less as we adapt to video conferencing, we haven't gotten any better. In fact, I wish this was only happening on Zoom or Google Meet.
Increasingly I'm seeing kids on mute - in the classroom.
In my current position, I get to see a lot teachers and work with instructional specialists as they support elementary schools during this pandemic. In classroom after classroom, school after school, I'm starting to notice an alarming trend.
I see kids hunkering down silently behind plexiglass. I see iPads or Chromebooks on desks as students receive instruction from a teacher through technology. Sometimes, I've even seen kids in the classroom on Zoom getting the lesson from a teacher, also on Zoom, sitting 10 feet away from them.
And no one is talking.
Somehow we've lost the normal chatter that should be occurring in classrooms. High-level questions, turn-and-talks, social conversations, and feedback loops are missing. Instead, kids are sitting on mute even in a physical classroom.
This is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, students process new information through talk. Passively receiving information is an ineffective teaching strategy. Students are not Google Drive folders that information can be dropped into. After listening, watching, or seeing new information, it only becomes real to them when they elaborate on it. Unless they relate the new knowledge or skill to something they already know and add it to their existing schema, it's in one ear and out the other.
This is best accomplished through talking.
Oral language development not only builds vocabulary, it gives students a relatively risk-free opportunity to try out their growing language skills. Oral language is so important that in the newly rewritten Reading/Language Arts standards in Texas, oral language development is the very first knowledge and skill statement. And for many students in Texas whose native language is not English, talking is almost as important as breathing.
So, what can we do as educators to unmute our students?
In your lesson planning, whether looking at reading/language arts. math, or any other subject, think about how you want students to process what they've learned. Before they jump on Seesaw or Google classroom to work on their assignment, take five minutes and give them a structure and opportunity to talk. Here are some ideas that align to the elaborate model.
Explain: Ask students to explain to a partner what they just learned. Take the key concept or vocabulary word and give them an opportunity to describe it in their own words.
Look: Have students observe something related to the topic, such as a picture or real-world artifact, and describe it. You can easily put an extra twist on this by having them look at it from a different point of view (e.g., describe your classroom desk from the perspective of an ant).
Associate: Students learn best when they link new learning to previous learning. Ask students to find and describe connections between the current topic and something they've learned previously. They can also relate their own prior knowledge and experience to what you're studying.
Build: Models and representations are great ways to capture abstract concepts like place value or the water cycle. Have students draw a picture that represents what they've learned about and explain the drawing to a partner.
Organize: Ask students to classify and sort items, topics, or objects into categories. The categories can be given to the students or generated by the students themselves. Give them an opportunity to justify their organizational decisions to a partner.
Reflect: This is one of the easiest but most underutilized learning tools. Let students work with a partner or a group of three to answer questions about their current level of knowledge. How much do they know about what they're learning about? What do they still need to know more about? What do they feel most confident about? And after each of these questions, you can always ask the best three-letter question in existence - why?
Analyze: Analysis questions are what we think of when we think of higher-order questions (e.g., Bloom's taxonomy). Students can explore with a partner why certain things are true and what would happen if various parts of the system changed.
Try: Nike says it best with their slogan Just Do It. No kid has ever learned how to play a video game by reading the instructional manual. No, they learn by doing, failing, doing some more, and failing some more. Sometimes the best way to encourage discussion is to give students a chance to try something new without too much initial support.
Extend: Conversation can be extended when students are asked to add onto something they've learned. After reading a book, have them talk about what the character might do next. After solving a math problem have them try to write a new problem that has the same answer.
While the ELABORATE model is useful for considering how to help students learn and internalize content, it applies to both individual and collaborative work. To really take your students' oral language development to the next level, consider pairing some ELABORATE thought processes with one or two PEEPS talking stems adapted from Jeff Zwiers & Marie Crawford's Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking & Content Understanding (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011).
Paraphrase: "You think that..." "What I understood you say was that..."
Elaborate: "Tell me more about..." "What does ___ mean?"
Examples: "A real-world example of this is..." "You can see an example of this..."
Piggyback: "Another way to think about that is..." "This reminds me of..."
Synthesize: "We can agree on..." "The main point of what we learned is..."
Join me in the Unmute Project. I want teachers everywhere to consider how to add at least one extra conversational component to each lesson. Even if it's just for five minutes, get your students off mute and have them talk to each other. If you have students at home connecting remotely, you can easily train your in-person students to talk in pairs while you put on headphones and engage with your virtual learners.
Will you help me unmute this generation?