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Insinnia

and Skarecki
Power
Chatting:
Lessons
for Success
Elaine
Insinnia| and
Eileen
Cleary
Skarecki
page

10

Power Chatting: Lessons for Success

hat happens when the in-class


discussion becomes an online
experience? WeElaine, a
middle school language arts teacher, and
Eileen, the technology coordinator for the
districtdiscovered that good things
happen when classrooms become chat
rooms and talk becomes type.

In particular, we saw that students enjoyed talking about the topic at hand more and were willing to sustain that talk longer. Shy students felt as
comfortable offering answers as more talkative students, and everyone was pleased that answers could
be archived for later review. Chat rooms, we
found, werent about providing a forum for mindless chatter but were about using the space many
students were already familiar with to encourage
reflective talk about learning and literature. But
using chat rooms successfully takes more than getting technology set up. Successful usewhat we
call power chattinghappens when guidelines for
success are in place. 1
As you read this article, youll see comments
from both of usElaine and Eileenthat explain
our thinking as our chat room experiment progressed. Youll also find chat room conversations
between Elaine (Ms. Insinnia) and her students.
These conversations provide the anecdotal context from which those lessons evolved.
1
Editors note: Sending students into unsupervised chat
rooms is never a good idea. These rooms are not unsupervised
youre there with them. However, there are some safety issues to
be considered. See the next article by Hallee Adelman (page 17)
for some excellent tips on how to teach your students to be safe in
chat rooms.

Guidelines for Getting Started


<Elaine> Before my students educated me, my
perception of chat rooms was that of a place where
kids gossiped with friends, typed outrageous lies,
and got into trouble. The impetus for a different
perspective came in 1997. While searching the
Internet for information about Paul Zindels novel,
The Pigman, one of my students found a Pigman
chat room. The room was empty. My students
pleaded with me to let them share their Internet
findings in it. I rushed into Eileens office, which
is adjacent to the computer lab. What do you
think of using a chat room to discuss the book
were reading, Eileen?
As always, Eileen was way ahead of the curve.
She eagerly validated my instinct to go ahead with
it. In fact, she logged into the chat room herself
so she could observe what was occurring.
<Eileen> I wasnt really sure what was going to
happen, but I thought, why not? The kids were
obviously very excited. This is a tool they know
and loveits their method of communicating.
<Elaine> Everyone entered the chat room, many
of the kids using the screen names they were accustomed to using at home. I began typing in questions. Students immediately started posting
answersone appearing right after the next. Id
enter another question and see a response, but then
would realize it was a response to a previous question that was no longer visible on my screen. I was
soon lost in the maze of questions and answers
and, just as quickly, had discovered I had no idea
who BluEyEs and YAPster22 were. My questions,
their answers, their screen namesall of it scrolled
before me, and I was soon thinking chat rooms
were most certainly not the way to have a discus-

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sion. We survived the period, but not without me


learning some valuable lessons:
LESSON #1: When logging into the chat room, students must use their real names. Note: No one has
to type in a profile; thats just a waste of time.
LESSON #2: The teacher (or whoever is leading the
discussion) must type his/her comments or questions in
all caps. This change in type helps both student
and facilitator find each other quickly.
LESSON #3: When posting factual questions, give students a time limit or make a contest out of itthe first
5 correct answers get extra credit.
LESSON #4: Remind students that if they are answering a previously posted question, they must reference
that question in their answer.
LESSON #5: Dont forget that the chat room is a classroom, and that means calling on students is still permissible, as is establishing an order for talking:
<Ms. Insinnia> ELLEN, YOURE FIRST. TOM,
YOURE NEXT.
<Ellen> Who breaks Mr. Pignatis pigs
looking for money?
<Tommy>What was John wearing on his
feet when the police took him home?
<Eileen> There was so much more to learn. Those
nitty-gritty lessons got us started. Continued experience taught us even more.

Moving beyond the Basics


LESSON #6: Assign a student to print out a copy of the
chat or, preferably, save it on a disk, hard drive, or
server.
<Elaine> Even though the first session had some
bumps, the kids loved it! Everyone could express
an opinion simultaneously. The downside was that
the answers scrolled up too quickly when the question was open to the entire class. One student
solved the problemshe copied and pasted the
chat in Word and then printed a copy for me. She

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explained that she could have printed directly from


the chat room, but by saving in Word first, she
was able to enlarge the font size and delete our
initial greetings. Thus, my copy consisted of the
meat of the discussion only. I now had a record
of every students answers! I learned later that Chat rooms, we found,
saving the chat on a disk,
werent about providing a
the hard drive, or the
server is just as effective forum for mindless chatter
and saves paper.

but were about using the

<Eileen> Perusing a chat


space many students were
in a leisurely fashion later
on is an effective way to already familiar with to
assess the discussion.
encourage reflective talk
Lets face it, unless you
tape-record classroom about learning and literature.
discussions or take shorthand, your only record of it is in your memory; if
you teach 120 students, as Elaine does, thats pretty
unreliable.
LESSON #7: Though the term chat implies casual conversation, power chatting requires as much planning
as any other lesson.
<Elaine> Additional trips to the chat room began
to show me that the pace in a chat room is much
faster than the pace in a classroom; as a result, our
discussions would often veer off from my mental
map before I could assess if this new direction
was productive. At the close of class, Id occasionally see that although we had had great discussions, we had not covered all the topics Id hoped
we would. Then I realized that even though our
discussions were happening in a virtual classroom,
I still had to plan with the same detail that I would
for a regular classroom discussion. For me, that
meant writing down before class the questions or
ideas I wanted to make sure we discussed.
LESSON #8: Use private chat rooms by clicking on a
students name and inviting that student to join you or
another student in a private chat.
<Elaine> During chat room discussions, we noticed that many of the quieter kids were very vocal,

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and that no one ridiculed another students answer. Students who shouted out if not called on
immediately in the classroom were no longer
dominant. Everyone was equalmale/female,
popular/unpopular, impulsive/thoughtful. Indeed,
sharing in the chat room
We quickly discovered our shatters all of the invisible
hunch was right: all barriers that keep so many
of our students on the
students, but especially my outside of the typical
reluctant readers, enjoyed classroom discussion. We
have a Deaf and Hard of
reading more when they Hearing Program in the
were reading online. district. The chat room
opens incredible opportunities for these hearing-impaired students. They
participate in the discussion without an interpreterunencumbered.
<Eileen> A few weeks after finding the Pigman chat
room, a student discovered a better chat room in
the midst of a Tale of Two Cities search. Twice the
size, this newly discovered room could accommodate more students comments, plus the comments did not scroll off the screen too quickly.
Even more appreciated, entire paragraphs could
be typed or copied and pasted at once! This particular chat room was a Volano chat room, which
is available for a small fee at www.volano.com.
Eventually, we found a wonderful and free site
for hosting discussions at www.bravenet.com. This
is the site we currently use. With some simple instructions from the techies at Bravenet, I was able
to link our chat room to our districts homepage
by adding some code. Whoever is managing the
Web site in your district should easily be able to
add the code and link to your own chat room.
<Elaine> Just when I thought I was a chat room
connoisseur, students began to offer to create private chat rooms so that I could have multiple chats
running simultaneously. Another great idea! Chatting in more than one chat room gives students
even more opportunities to answer. A good methodology is to vary the implementation as much as
you can so the chat room does not become an-

other boring tool. As soon as I understood how


the private chat room worked, I realized that I
could ask a student to step out into the hall with
me for a private conference or that I could send
students off to a corner to work together by
sending them into a private chat room. This is
great for the teacheryou can speak to anyone
privately. Also, it is a terrific way for partners working on a project, debate, or PowerPoint to communicate. Warning! You must be vigilant of those
students who will use this feature to distract themselves or others.
LESSON #9: Using the Internet and chat room not only
engages students but allows students to use time more
efficiently.
<Eileen> Our computer lab is set up with all computer screens facing the back rowthe teacher can
sit in the back, turn out the lights, and see all the
screens easily. Any student who abuses the private
chat feature is directed to turn off the monitor
and sit with the teacher. Students do not enjoy
being left out of the chat for long, and ordinarily
will not chat privately during the next electronic
discussion. Being too forgiving while in the chat
room can lead to goofing around, which will
spoil the experience.
<Eileen> Once we had the rooms really up and
running, we began looking for ways to use computers not only for chats but also for reading texts.
Even though Elaines students were proficient
readers, many students didnt like to read. We
wondered if reading on a screen would be more
motivating than reading on the page. We found
two sites that were very helpful in accessing public domain literature: www.gutenberg.org and
www.bibliomania.com to find online literature.
Elaine began using these sites when her students
read A Tale of Two Cities and Ransom of Red Chief.
<Elaine> We quickly discovered our hunch was
right: all students, but especially my reluctant readers, enjoyed reading more when they were reading online. My reluctant readers happily read from
the computer screen about the wild cat boy kid-

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napped by bungling kidnappers, copied and pasted


their favorite funny scenes into a Word program,
and then shared and discussed these in the chat
room.
<Eileen> No procrastination, no complaints.
These kids love the computer screen and when
asked about reading on the screen, they unabashedly reply, Its not really reading; its fun!
<Elaine> As we read Tale of Two Cities, I saw that
each day students quickly opened the assigned
chapter and within minutes were busily copying/
pasting significant lines into their Word documents. When they needed to explain or interpret
passages, they used the Web to explore historical
references. (Excerpts from our Tale of Two Cities
chat discussion can be found online at http://
home.comcast.net/~eskarecki/.) When students
had to do the same thing without the Internet,
they had to spend a week in the library searching
for and hand copying a small fraction of the information we now find and share on the Internet in
20 minutes!
LESSON #10: If your students have photographs or very
long articles to share, have them copy/paste the URL
in the chat room for everyone.
<Elaine> While reading the Holocaust memoir
Night, the students searched for related Web sites
as they read the novel. They discovered pictures
of the concentration camps, interviews with Holocaust survivors, even Elie Wiesel himself discussing his horrifying experiences. The students saved
what they found in Word. Next, they copied/
pasted the URL addresses into the chat room to
share these sites. Students could then link to the
site via the URL address.2 Once the site is explored, the class can discuss it in the chat room,
save it for themselves in Word, then on a disk, email it home, or even print it.
<Eileen> Notice the students find the sites. They
2

Editors note: Read the details of this project in the authors article, Teach a Novel without the Internet? Never Again!
published in ISTEs Leading and Learning with Technology magazine, May 2000.

13

take responsibility for the learning and are excited


about it. Dont destroy the best part about the
Internet search by handing out URLs. Many
teachers believe they must investigate every site a
student visits to be certain it is okay. School districts must filter the
Internet, a mandate if they These kids love the comreceive any federal funds,
puter screen and when
so this eliminates most of
the fear about students asked about reading on the
finding inappropriate
screen, they unabashedly
graphics or information.
However, with huge top- reply, Its not really readics, such as democracy or
ing; its fun!
survival, direct students to
a list of sites and let them
choose where to start. This type of scaffolded
search experience helps students learn to research
on the Web.
Validity is another concernwhat if the students find invalid information? It is our job to teach
students how to discern if the information is valid
or not, whether it is found in a book, newspaper,
or on the Internet.3
Teachers sometimes complain that students
find too much irrelevant information and thus become overwhelmed. Time for a lesson in search
techniques! If students use the correct tools to
narrow their search (quotation marks, plus and
minus signs), they will eliminate most of the irrelevant information.4
LESSON #11: Use all the tools the computer offers
word processing; Web-based researching; online chatting, and dont be afraid to use them simultaneously.
<Elaine> As we began to not only talk online, but
read online, I saw that students were quite adept
at handling multiple programs and screens simultaneously. Their ability to multitask this way
helped their work and our discussions. Soon, I
could enter the chat room, tell students what they
3
Editors note: Be sure to take a look at Jeff Wilhelms article on p. 45. He focuses on helping students evaluate Web sites.
4
Editors note: Review Eagleton, Guinee, & Langlais in the
March 2003 issue of VM for excellent information on teaching
search techniques.

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needed to do with the text they were reading, and


then students would, with the chat room screen
still open, turn to either their Word document for
personal writing or go to their online text for more
reading. No one hunts
I couldnt wait to tell around for paper, pens,
and books left in lockers.
everyone about this liberatAll you hear is the clicking experienceclassroom ing of keys.
<Eileen> Multiple windows opened simultaneously seems rather complicated, but the kids
handle it without trepidation. They minimize the
two windows they are not currently using and
merely click the icon down in the tray when they
need to use them.

walls actually falling down!

Power Chatting at Home


LESSON #12: Use this technology to extend learning to
the home.
<Elaine> On one occasion, a girl asked if she and
her friends could continue a class discussion at
home. The next morning, the participating students rushed up to me waving disks and printed
copies of their homework discussion. Included was
a rather lively debate concerning the morality of
Joe Keller in Arthur Millers All My Sons. It was so
insightful that I used it as a jumping off point for
a related assignment. While we were in the chat
room that day, a girl who was absent from school
logged in from home when she knew the class was
meeting; she participated in the discussion, got the
homework, and was completely prepared the next
day.
That evening, I joined the nighttime chatterstwelve of themdiscussing The Glass Menagerie. I typed:
<MS. INSINNIA> A PLAYWRIGHT SOMETIMES BASES HIS
CHARACTERS ON PEOPLE HE KNOWS. DID TENNESSEE WILLIAMS DO THIS IN HIS PLAY?
Yes, they agreed, Williams did. He was the Tom
figure, and Laura and Amanda were actually his
sister and mother. Julie typed, Did you know that
his sister was really handicapped and had a lo-

botomy? Our conversation was so engrossing that


finally John typed, My father wants me off now.
Its nine oclock and I have to finish my homework. I was shocked that an hour had passed and
a bit embarrassed that I had kept kids talking too
late. We quickly signed off.
At my classroom door the next day, the students who had been involved in the previous
evenings chat were brimming with excitement.
The boy whose father had reprimanded him told
me his father apologized. He hadnt known his son
was talking to his English teacher. Later on, I
found myself at Eileens office door brimming with
excitement, too!
<Eileen> What could be better? Teachers and students excited, an excitement that is totally contagious! I couldnt wait to tell everyone about this
liberating experienceclassroom walls actually
falling down! The students love discussing their
assigned homework chapters electronically, using
Instant Messaging. Small groups of two to four
are ideal for this.
<Elaine> Of course, not all students have access
to computers at home. To accommodate those students, consider having homework time in class
where students can IM each other or participate
in chats, or distribute passes so students can visit
rooms in the school where there are computers
(e.g., the library or your room) during free time,
such as before or after school or even during lunch,
to post messages to one another.
LESSON #13: Share homework chats with the entire
class and remember to allow students to experiment so
the chat room homework experience does not become
old hat.
<Elaine> Initially, I was really enjoying reading
the homework chats, although at some point, I
realized the rest of the class was missing out on
some wonderful and insightful discussion. Two
girls suggested we read the homework chats aloud
so everyone could get in on them. I agreed, and
these two eager students read their homework chat
aloud for the class. It was no different than reading a script. The class was immediately engaged,

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many listeners finding their own questions answered. The next day nearly everyone arrived with
a homework chat. Questions arose as chats were
read. Questions led to more questions, and the
discussion of that evenings chapter soared to new
heights!
<Eileen> A new dilemma arosenot enough time
to read all the homework chats. I suggested Elaine
place students in small groups to share chats. Some
groups chose to swap partners, and this generated
fresh excitement. We learned to mix up the numbers, the venue, and to share in chats when possible. We also asked parents to facilitate homework
chats.
LESSON #14: Consider grading these chats, giving
points, and of course praising good discussions and questions.
<Eileen> Wed like to emphasize that the discussions are honest and engaging. Kids who fool
around at first eventually realize they will receive
more than enough attention when they answer
questions seriously. Additionally, they realize that
the teacher will not only be reading their answers,
but will have a hard copy of them.
<Elaine> Homework chats are always optional and
can be done in lieu of the traditional homework
assignment. As with many things, some students
worked harder when they realized their work was
valued enough for a grade.

What Students Have to Say


<Eileen> Finally, we wondered if students really
did enjoy the online discussions more than class
discussions, so we ran an experiment. Elaines students discussed a story in the traditional classroom
setting (chairs in a circle), and then again the next
day in the chat room. Afterwards, she asked them
to go into their chat rooms to compare the discussions. Their chat room discussion is reproduced
below. We have not changed some of the shortcuts the students use, such as u for you and ne for
any, nor have we added missing punctuation. Note
that the chat room experiences reproduced here

occurred in either a small part of a 40-minute period, or in two 10-minute sessions during separate periods.
<Elaine> COMPARE THE CHAT ROOM DISCUSSION AND
THE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION. PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR
POSITION.

<Laura> i liked both, its easier to say what u mean


when youre not typing, i think.
<nina> its more fun in the chat room
<Paul> we can all type at
once and I also like typing Homework chats are always
<Parker> Chat: everyone
optional and can be done in
can talk at once and not be
intimidated because no lieu of the traditional homeone can drown them out,
work assignment.
not that i would be
drowned out
<jAY> the discussion in the classroom was awkward because all my answers were taken before
<Rini> in the chatroom you can see everybodys
ideas at once and compare them but when you are
talking, you cant compare it at once
<Keith> The Classroom was better in the fact that
not all people were talking at once, but in the same
sense the chat room was easier to get your opinion in
<Allison K> The chatroom is a little more random and there is more goofing around, but its
more fun and less business-like than the discussion because everyones talking at once
<Laura> but everyone gets a chance to answer in
the chat room.
<Elaine>BRIAN, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
<Brian> I think the chat room lets more people
say something but in the classroom only a couple
people can express their ideas
<Michelle> the pros for having a chatroom are that
you can have a discussion with everybody talking
(typing) at once without being interrupted. the
cons for having it in the chatroom are that it takes
a while to type your long answers
<Parker > in class: more emotions with your voice,
but u have to wait your turn
<nina> but....i type slowly
<david> the chatroom allows people to speak freely

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ADVANTAGES TO CHAT DISCUSSIONS
If it falls to you to convince colleagues, administrators, or parents that this learning tool is
valuable, remember these important points:
Absent students participate in class discussion from home (or read the saved chat).
Reticent students answer without fear.
Thoughtful students express opinions without
the discussion boomeranging to a new topic.
Teachers listen to all students, not just the
most vociferous ones.
All students hear the questionno repetition necessary.
Students stay engaged and focused for longer
amounts of time.
Teachers and students have a record of
discussions.
Students recall of facts improves due to the
visual repetition.

and not worry about feeling embarrassed cause of


the rate of speed
<Parker> the chat room is better, even if you type
slowly
<Ellen> Ms.Insinnia can also print it out and give
us credit for our answers
<Neil> although you are a little rushed in the chat
room
<Laura> ellenshe can also see our wrong answers
<david> chat is awesome!
<Rini> most people are used to chatting
<Maria> i agree with parker
<jAY> i agree with myself
<Eileen> When the chat discussion concluded,
Elaine typed in the homework assignment. No one
needed her to repeat it; it was right there on the
screen! Most significant, the kids really enjoy the
chat room.
LESSON #15: Share chats as much as you can with
your students, colleagues, parents, and even with classes
in other school districts. Its a great tool for increasing and equalizing participation and for fostering
in-depth learning!

Elaine Insinnia has recently retired from teaching language arts at Columbia School in Berkeley
Heights, New Jersey. She can be reached at einsinnia@worldnet.att.net.
Eileen Cleary Skarecki is a K12 technical coordinator in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
She can be reached at eskarecki@comcast.net.

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