Digital conversations are a good way to connect with students learning at home—and they can serve as a useful artifact of learning.

Engaging teenagers in classroom discussion has often confounded me through my many roles in education as teacher, staff developer, assistant principal, and now adjunct professor and student-teacher supervisor. It’s as if the conditions have to be just so and include the right atmosphere and maybe a bolt of lightning. This act of engagement is especially challenging now through our virtual learning environments, where many of us stare at a screen of stacked gray blocks and names in white type.

With the prospect of returning to face-to-face instruction or hybrid constructions, what can we learn that works in our digital spaces that can readily transfer to our in-person classrooms? How do teachers motivate students to share ideas and risk “being wrong” in the digital space or the public space of the in-person classroom? How can we catch that lightning in a bottle?

Well, there is the chat function built into many of the digital tools we use. There is power in the chat that can be intentionally put to use now and in the future.

1. Chat me. My class chat is always open. I pause at key points in the lesson to invite chat, such as after a warm-up or direct instruction. I want to know what the students discussed after they emerge from breakout rooms. Inviting students to “chat me” facilitates student comment, questions, connection-making, and time to process information so that it sticks. I offer (as one of my student teachers calls it) a “chat/no chat” option where students can choose whether they want to jump in and voice their responses or write in the chat.

2. Use chat to create a predictable environment in an unpredictable world. In a virtual environment, inspired and insightful student thinking emerges when rituals are put into practice and pace the lesson. There is comfort in ritual that inspires students to take academic risks in expressing their thinking. I always plan an entrance ticket, a mid-lesson check-in, and an exit ticket.

3. Thank students and acknowledge their chats. I want to build a community of respect through chat and directly connect with each student. I also want to be inclusive and incorporate multiple modalities to give kids another entry point, so I will read a chat aloud. A student might struggle with typing and submit a partial response and find himself wanting to say more.

4. Prepare prompts. My goals include building writing fluency and reducing student impulsivity (you know, where they will add anything to be heard), so my prompts are composed as sentences, and they include a writing length. Here’s one example: “Describe your emotions in five sentences or more after reading chapter four of The Hate U Give.” I adjust length requirements for time and purpose. When the writing request is long, I suggest that my students compose their thoughts on paper or a Word doc and copy and paste it into the chat. Here, in the chat, as in my classroom, I look for “a paragraph of talk.”

5. Chat enables formative assessment and establishes student accountability. I can assess on an ongoing basis what’s been entered into the chat. I want to know what they are taking away from the lesson and what they think they are taking away from the lesson. I want to see if they have been listening or they are present in name only.

6. Allow for wait time. Digital silence is the deepest quiet ever heard. We make the mistake of asking, “Are there any questions?” and are greeted by silence, which we incorrectly interpret as an affirmation of understanding. We need to wait for students to compose their best thinking to enter in the chat and make their thinking visible.

7. Monitor the chat. I toggle between listening and reading the chat. Some teachers are not comfortable with this. Invite a collaborating teacher or any other support adult in the room to track the chat. Train student monitors to observe chat, reserve questions for later, and create a parking lot for “things we are curious about” or “topics that emerged that we want to know more about.”

8. Invite students to drop information into the chat. Embrace the idea that students might be operating more than one device. Use this to your advantage. For instance, when coming upon a word whose definition might not be known by everyone, ask for them to find the meaning and drop it into the chat.

9. Utilize private chat. This works well for conferring, checking in, providing feedback, reteaching, and enriching, and to leverage learning. Have private chats with individual students while a co-teacher leads instruction or while other students are in breakout rooms.

10. Download chat as an artifact. This document memorializes the conversation. Post it in a designated space or share it with students via email. It can serve as a brainstorm page for future writing, research, or inquiry. It also might be useful in discussions with teacher teams and administrators when setting future schoolwide goals or adjusting grade-level instructional plans.

Using chat may not be an exact substitute for face-to-face conversation, but when used with intention, it can create an electric connection between teachers and their students and students with their classmates. With chat, teachers have the power to create a collaborative learning space with plentiful opportunities for formative assessment and the promise of planning lessons that invite student engagement. But most of all, chat offers a way for us to connect with—and even bond with—our students who inhabit an atmosphere of isolation and anxiety that may last even when we return to in-person learning and beyond.