Thursday, February 16, 2017

WhatsApp as a Platform for Instruction

Every country has states of emergency when schools get closed.  There are snowdays, and floods and all sorts of mishaps - short term and long - that bring learning to a screeching halt. In Israel, especially where I live - we also have security situations that keep kids out of school.

Just for such purposes, the Israeli MoE has run a special pilot for the past two years, training teachers and students how to be able to stay on the same page of their coursework, if they wish to, in times of emergency. Last year it was via online instruction. This year it was through learning how to teach using WhatsApp: the app that 99% of Israelis use to stay in touch.

The first stage for me, as a teacher, was experiencing a lesson run solely through a WhatsApp group. As usual, I was sufficiently inspired by the experience with Aviv Tzemach, to invest a ton of time in learning different techniques,and try it for myself.

Stage two was working with another talented and inspiring mentor from the Center for Educational Technology, Gilad. I "cooked" my idea for hours, and had two online simulations together with him and another "WhatsApp-teacher-in-training".  Through him I learned different techniques of a WhatsApp lesson: making eye-catching signs, using bold letters, replying to a specific message, preparing prerecorded messages, as well as sharing a location in WhatsApp became an integral part of today's arsenal of tools.

Stage three was to open a WhatsApp group. I have a "broadcast group" with my students, in which I send them messages but their responses come only to me. But for the purposes of this drill, I needed a regular WhatsApp group. 
The final stage -"showtime"- happened this evening at 6 p.m.

I was skeptical - even pessimistic - regarding turnout. I have a small class (19 kids) and Thursday evening is NOT a good time for something like this. I even tried to up the stakes and entice participation by getting permission from my vice principal to excuse them from one of my two lessons with them today, as compensation, but was denied that. Surprisingly, the bribery worked and 14 out of my 19 students participated, earning for themselves 5 extra points for their final report cards (aside from 2 who lost a point each for misbehaving). Students behave badly in class, as well, but on WhatsApp there was no need to raise a voice or pause to wait for quiet. The great majority of the entire lesson was in utter silence. The disciplining was either done in a comment in the group, or, for a more severe issue, I sent a reprimanding message to the student privately.

The students seemed to enjoy it (judging from the sample of emoji's I got from them when I asked for their emoji-feedback:

The topic I chose was Israel Advocacy. As an Israeli who lives on the border with the Gaza Strip, and has become very involved, herself, in advocating for Israel (even though I do not always agree with our policies) I feel very strongly about the need to give our youth the basic tools needed for periods of heightened tension and danger, to tell the world about what it is like to live here. It is an authentic use of English as a tool for an authentic need for communication. Teaching is best done when we are teaching something about which we are passionate. Hopefully, we will never need to use language, or the WhatsApp as a tool of communication for situations such as these, but hopefully, if we DO, my pupils will be a little more ready for it after tonight's lesson. 

Digitally yours,


You can view the entire lesson here. Warning: it is uncensored.