When I started teaching journalism, I realized 48 minutes with my students just wouldn’t do. News is happening at all hours of the day. To truly build student journalists, I was going to need a way to communicate with them on the fly.

We built a class group chat and students started firing off messages to each other.

“Who is covering the athletic signing at lunchtime?” “Did you guys see what Greta Thunberg just did?” “Can anyone help edit my story?” I realized that this seemingly insignificant tech tool was changing the environment of my classroom. I’d inadvertently created a virtual classroom, and students were thriving in it.

Let’s be honest, requiring students to discover a love of learning during the hour mandated for that subject area can go against the natural way humans learn. We are curious creatures, but our curiosity doesn’t follow a seven bell schedule and 48 minute periods. Our brains aren’t trained to ask science questions only during an hour span after lunch, and we can’t demand creativity in an art class at a specific time expecting equally great results daily. Evoking natural curiosity in our students demands flexibility, something that the traditional classroom can’t always offer.

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Regardless of which platform you choose, group chats can breeds true curiosity for the subject.

When I’ve mentioned the group chat with my colleagues, they’ve raised concerns about maintaining boundaries with students. Is it different from emailing them? Yes. Definitely notify parents and comply with your school district’s parameters. In my experience, however, parents love their child having an additional means of connecting with the teacher and peers.

One parent told me that she was so thankful for the group chat and the communication skills it was teaching her daughter. She would encourage her teen to go to the group chat first when she was confused about something, rather than struggling alone. We are building community for students in a way they are already comfortable communicating. In addition, students have started to call out each other’s successes on the group chat, creating a supportive atmosphere of friends.

Setting ground rules for group communication is essential.

What is unprofessional in your group chat? What types of comments go against the rules? These are conversations we have at the beginning of the year. I also monitor the group chat closely for these types of issues. For example, in our chat we forbid any sort of gossip or calling out specific people in any sort of negative light.

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These are concepts that will serve my students well in their first workplace email chain in a few short years. With clear examples and education about speaking to each other as professional “coworkers” or “colearners” on this platform, there have been no issues.

But who has time to stay on top of all this, and answer messages from students all night?

Those are valid concerns, and it does require a commitment to communication outside of school hours. However, that’s why your phone has notification settings and sleep mode. You can also set “office hours” in which you will be available for questions and can set boundaries about when messaging should occur. You may find the conversation students have with each other makes things easier, though, as they come into class the next day prepared to discuss a topic someone brought up the previous afternoon. Also, I haven’t heard a single surprised protest when I announce we are beginning a quiz: after all, it was on the group chat.

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We’d love to hear—have you tried a class group chat? Come and share your experiences in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

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