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Mastering Breakout Rooms: Effective Strategies for Teaching Children


Six years ago, I dipped my toes into the wild world of online teaching, back when Skype was still the coolest kid on the block. Armed with nothing but a Google Doc and a glassy stare, I'd awkwardly email class materials and then spend the entire hour wondering if my student was secretly checking their phone or if they were just really engrossed in the riveting world of grammar. Thanks to technological advancements (and a few YouTube tutorials on how to look less like a deer in headlights), I've leveled up my online teaching game.


As any seasoned online educator will tell you, the evolution of teaching tools has been nothing short of miraculous. And one such game-changer? Breakout rooms! With platforms like Zoom leading the charge, suddenly, I could whisk my students away into virtual realms of collaboration and discussion, leaving behind the days of awkwardly staring at a single face for an hour. I was pleasantly surprised to find that with just a few clicks, I could recreate my offline classroom in the virtual world with minimal effort. It was like waving a digital wand and poof – there it was, complete with students, whiteboards, and peer interactions.


While it works like a charm for replicating the traditional classroom experience with adult learners, wrangling a group of children in this virtual space presents its own set of delightful challenges. Indeed, children often find themselves navigating both the intricacies of technology and the nuances of relationships in this brave new virtual world. And from what I've observed, they don't always have the maturity to handle it with the grace of seasoned adults. Hence, the teacher must tread the virtual waters with the finesse of a tightrope walker, delicately balancing technology, relationships, and the occasional outbreak of digital chaos.


Here are a few ways to make Breakout rooms work for you, especially with primary school learners or adolescents.


  • No breakout room activities on Day 1


It's a rookie mistake that many of us have made. While the excitement of introducing breakout rooms right after the introduction is tempting, it's a bit like trying to run before you can walk. Without fully establishing ground rules and expectations, it can be risky to dive straight into group activities. Taking the time to lay the foundation and ensure that everyone is on the same page will ultimately set the stage for more successful and productive breakout room sessions down the line.


  • Visit ALL the breakout rooms and STAY awhile.


Staying actively involved in breakout room activities is crucial, especially when working with young children. While it might be tempting to assign tasks and step back, maintaining presence and supervision ensures that students stay on task and that any issues can be addressed promptly. By visiting each room, teachers can observe dynamics, provide guidance, and offer support as needed, fostering a positive and productive learning environment for all students involved.


  • Intervene if there's a problem.


While it's common for teachers to encourage students to "sort it out" on their own, young children may struggle to navigate conflicts or misunderstandings, especially in an online setting. In such cases, it's essential for teachers to intervene and provide guidance to help resolve issues effectively. Sure, it may cut into teaching time, but intervening in such situations can significantly enhance students' social and emotional development.


  • Keep the task simple.


Brainstorming sessions are more effective when done outside of breakout rooms, using tools like Mentimeter or Padlet to facilitate collaboration and idea generation. Once inside the breakout room, children should be engaged in actively working on a task rather than brainstorming. This approach provides clearer guidance and structure, ensuring that all students can participate effectively without feeling overwhelmed or left out.


Assigning tasks that are too open-ended, like creating a presentation on ANY one cause of pollution, can indeed lead to chaos and potential monopolization within breakout rooms. Providing specific guidelines and structure, such as having children discuss various causes beforehand and choose one to work on, streamlines the task and increases the likelihood of a smooth and productive session within the breakout room.


Personally, I love assigning reading / grammar / vocabulary exercises for a Breakout Room. With pre-defined answers, it provides clear guidance for students and simplifies the task distribution process. It also renders a boring task interesting. Additionally, it encourages collaboration and peer support, as stronger students can assist those who may be struggling. Creative tasks need to be streamlined before being assigned to students in a Breakout Room.


  • Ask for feedback.


Incorporate opportunities for students to reflect on their breakout room experiences and provide feedback on what worked well and what could be improved. Use this feedback to refine future breakout room activities and enhance the overall learning experience for students.


While breakout rooms can be a valuable tool for fostering collaboration and engagement, they're not always the best fit for every classroom environment. Ultimately, creating a positive and supportive learning environment should be the top priority, and if breakout rooms don't contribute to that goal, it's perfectly fine to skip them and explore alternative teaching methods. Flexibility and adaptability are key in finding what works best for your students and classroom dynamics.













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