Over the past several months, many of us have experienced changes in the way we communicate, meet, teach, or work. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to quickly learn more about technology and put it into practice due to the restrictions that many school districts and work places have implemented for social distancing and virtual learning or virtual meetings. A variety of platforms are being used to go forward with our school and work meeting needs. A key feature included in most of these platforms is breakout rooms.

What are Breakout Rooms?

Think about when you physically attend a conference and there is a general session and then breakout sessions. You would leave to attend a smaller group to brainstorm and collaborate around a common topic. A virtual breakout room has that same purpose. A breakout room is a sub-room that is used to make a large group smaller to collaborate and share out.

Breakout rooms are used by educators near and far during synchronous instruction. Virtual teaching during whole group lessons does not allow for all students to unmute and share their complete thoughts. Breakout rooms can be used in multiple ways to make your lessons more effective and engaging.

What are the Benefits of Breakout Rooms?

When teachers began to plan for virtual lessons in August this year, it was stressful. Teachers quickly realized that they could not solely rely on plans from the past, regardless of how effective they were or how much growth was yielded from using them. Virtual instruction would require teachers and support staff to learn new ways to reach their students.

Breakout rooms have become very popular since the start of this virtual learning era. Several platforms offer this feature to make teaching more effective. Using breakout rooms help teachers with classroom management and allow them to maintain some of the same routines that were included in face-to-face instruction.

Strategies for Using Breakout Rooms Effectively

Virtual Think, Pair, Share

Students thrive when they can think out loud. Think, pair, share was a common practice during whole group instruction when we were in our buildings. With breakout rooms, this strategy is still possible. Teachers can set the breakout rooms for two students each and time the session for them to share their thoughts about a passage that was just read, a review question, making an inference, or any other skill that is necessary for that particular lesson. Students enjoy talking with their peers. They share more, and this also gives them time to make connections with their classmates that otherwise could not happen in whole group.

Classroom Management

Often times we need to speak with students one on one. Have you ever seen a teacher out in the hallway speaking with a student? Teachers choose to do this so they can talk with the student about behavior or motivation without the embarrassment of talking in front of the class. Breakout rooms can be used for this purpose as well. If there is a student who is off task, doing something on camera that is prohibited, or disrupting class, the teacher can invite them to the breakout room for a brief conversation to get them back on track. This would give the student the opportunity to privately share what is bothering them or causing their actions.

Assessments and Testing Accommodations

Assessments must still be given during virtual learning. This process has been interesting to handle as we are used to specific practices and controlled environments to gain the best and most authentic data. Breakout rooms can be used during assessments so that teachers can monitor students and assist them as necessary. Students will also then be able to complete their assessment without the worry of being distracted by others on the screen. Teachers can test multiple students at once and still monitor effectively with this strategy.

Using breakout rooms for accommodations is also valuable. Older students may take an assessment in a whole group setting but there are students who need accommodations according to their IEP (Individual Education Plan). Breakout rooms can be used to give students these accommodations such as separate setting, extended time, or read aloud. Teachers of course have to manage this appropriately, but with good planning it can be done.

Small Group Instruction and Station Work

Small groups are probably the most common use of breakout rooms for educators. Whole group sessions are followed by small groups and station or center work. Virtual learning is modeled after this block. Teachers are still planning small groups according to ability and/or specific skills. Breakout rooms are used so students can work with the teacher in a small group based on this practice. While the teacher is in small group instruction, the other students can be assigned to additional breakout rooms to collaborate and complete station work or asynchronous assignments.

Curriculum Nights

Our school conducts curriculum nights throughout the year. We create presentations with an overview of what the children will be learning during the year. Parents are invited to listen and ask questions for clarity. Grade levels are prepared to answer these questions. When there is a large group of attendees, breakout sessions are used to answer more specific questions that may only pertain to that family. Also, breakout sessions can be used for other purposes such as whole school sessions or grade levels-specific sessions.

If you are not very tech savvy and you do not think you can use breakout rooms effectively, I suggest that you team up with someone in your school or district who you know has those skills and is willing to share. My school instructional coach is a master in all things tech. She serves as a tech mentor along with instructional coaching. Find your person, collaborate, and do not give up. You can do it!