(illustration by Kenny Ortiguesa ’22) It’s that time of class again. We’re about to be sent into breakout rooms to discuss and then present on the video we just watched. The screen goes black, then transitions into four silent Bill Smith Photography portraits smiling at me. I only recognize one person; I think I had […]
(illustration by Kenny Ortiguesa ’22)
It’s that time of class again. We’re about to be sent into breakout rooms to discuss and then present on the video we just watched. The screen goes black, then transitions into four silent Bill Smith Photography portraits smiling at me. I only recognize one person; I think I had history with her last year, but I can’t recall us ever having a conversation.
About 20 seconds of silence passes when I decide to take one for the team.
“So what did you guys think of the video?”
Then: “Wait, what are we supposed to be doing?”
“We’re supposed to come up with two points that stood out from the video and then present them.” I try not to sound too eager, but I’m just glad I’m not the only one talking.
Back to crickets.
Sometimes I try again. Sometimes I don’t bother. I rarely get yanked out of a breakout room feeling productive at all.
Here’s the thing: for all I know, my breakout roommates could be asleep. Fighting crime. Committing crime. Laughing at my lame attempt at conversation. Literally who knows. And normally I wouldn’t care, but my participation grade is on the line here.
I long for last semester when breakout rooms were too confusing for the teachers to figure out.
Come presentation time, I usually end up fabricating a conversation about the two points that stood out to “us”. (If you’re my teacher, that’s a joke by the way)
I know that’s not exactly academic integrity, but I swear I tried! Pulling a conversation out of thin air between five teenage strangers is borderline impossible. It’s like we haven’t had a normal classroom encounter in almost a year…
I’m not the only CB student who feels this strongly about breakout rooms. Alyssa Angulo (’21) thinks they are a waste of time.
“Students just sit there,” she expressed with annoyance. She added that an assignment only adds to the stress. “No one participates, leading to the discussion being like talking to a brick wall”
Carmen Lloyd (’22) told me that the unnatural format of breakout rooms is what makes them so awkward. “It’s just off-putting not being in person — it’s almost like being on a call to a family member you barely know.”
Awkward breakout rooms are not unique to CB. I have seen dozens of TikTok and Twitter posts dramatizing the unpleasant experience of being in a silent breakout room, under which thousands of comments detail the dread of knowing you’re about to be put in one.
Despite this, teachers continue to send us out to work or discuss, so there have to be some pros in this sea of cons.
Math teacher Mrs. Kelly Safford utilizes breakout rooms where she would normally have students work together in the classroom. “It’s one of the best ways for them to learn, and I want them to discuss math and get more confident in saying stuff and making mistakes.” She says breakout rooms are the next best thing to working together in person.
She also mentioned how the success of the breakout rooms depends on the mix of students. I agree — a good breakout room requires people who actually like each other, which teachers have no way of predicting.
When Social Justice teacher Mrs. Jennifer Lystrup puts us in breakout rooms, she expects there to be a group leader and someone who takes notes on the conversation, but understands that that is not always the reality of breakout rooms. “You can have those expectations but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll happen.”
The time of day also has an influence on the vibes of the breakout room. Ms. Lystrup, whom I have G set (12:45-2:05 PM on Wednesdays and Fridays), told me that breakout rooms seem a lot more difficult after a long day. Mustering the social courage to put myself out there is significantly more daunting when the end is so near.
Breakout rooms are not a part of every class, however. Ms. Chrys Cassetta refrains from using breakout rooms in her English classes, instead opting for seminar discussions that include the entire class. From what she hears, breakout rooms don’t foster the connection she is looking for.
“Kids tell me they go into breakout rooms and they stare at each other and they don’t really talk, so that wouldn’t work for our purpose,”
She also added that she likes being part of the discussion that goes on during class. “I want to make sure that it’s going in the right way, that it doesn’t get off topic, and the responses are cogent and insightful.”
Ms. Cassetta makes a great point — there is a big difference between having discussions in class, where teachers regulate what is being said, and breakout rooms, where the absence of supervision provides little incentive to get work done.
No one really feels they have the authority or courage required to step up and take charge of the conversation. How do I persuade my peers to participate in an in-depth discussion about a book they didn’t even want to read? How do I reassure them that their opinion won’t be judged, or worse, recorded? Insecurities such as these contribute to the silence.
One junior I talked to told me that teachers making an appearance in breakout rooms would be a way to improve the experience, noting that “then it’s sorta like we kinda HAVE to talk.”
Kyla Reimer (’21) isn’t so optimistic, however, “Honestly, I’m not too sure if they can improve. Classwide discussions over Teams just work so much better.”
Carmen agrees, saying that “classes should not be so pressured to be out in breakout rooms, and until school is able to be more campus friendly, we should do assignments that engage the whole class”
Ms. Lystrup is also leaning towards the possibility of using them less, instead asking students to make posts and responses to the posts of peers on a Schoology discussion board.
“Sometimes I think with the discussion boards, students have to stop and really write things out, so I think that they get more dialogue”
This is in line with my experience, as I feel far more comfortable stating my opinion if I’m not the only one doing so.
Breakout rooms require an amount of social fearlessness that most teenagers don’t have. As a junior, I feel for the freshmen in breakout rooms expected to drum up a conversation with no idea who they are talking to. I also feel for the teachers who deal with crickets in every class. These difficult social situations are going to make us appreciate in person school even more when the time comes.