The Carousel Method: A Cure for Zoom Silence

By David Nurenberg

Since remote learning began, we’ve all had moments when we’ve asked a question of our class, only to be met with a grid of faces—or black boxes—that is utterly silent. Whether you’re trying to generate a discussion or assess learning, the hardest part can often be simply drawing the students out of their shells.

Of course, this dilemma predates remote learning, and teachers have developed many tools for shaking a class out of that stupor and making sure that all students, and not just the avid hand-raisers, get involved in an activity. One of my favorites is the Carousel: it gets every student engaged and cooperatively thinking about an idea. The pace is quick enough to keep them active, and both you and your students can assess knowledge or assemble understanding quickly and thoroughly. Fortunately, all parts of this activity can translate easily to an online environment.

Here’s how a Carousel works in a face-to-face classroom. Before your students arrive, you place posters around the classroom, each of which bears a question or a topic, with any of several goals, including:

Generating ideas:

· “What makes for a good story?”

· “What are some genres of fiction?”

· “What are the reasons some students fear poetry?”

Reviewing recently learned material:

· “What do organisms need to survive?”

· “What makes a habitat well suited to an organism?”

· “What might make a habitat change over time?”

Making and supporting arguments:

· “Why the USA should have joined the League of Nations”

· “Why it should not have”

· “Evidence of instability in the French monarchy prior to the revolution”

Students are placed into groups. Each group is given its own unique color of magic markers, and is told to stand near one of the posters. Their job is to add as much to the poster as they can, in response to the question or topic, before the teacher calls “time” and begins a new round. At that point, all groups rotate clockwise around the room. As each group comes to a new poster, they can add, comment on, or revise what their predecessors wrote, with every group’s contributions traceable by their assigned marker color. The procedure continues until all groups have visited all posters and returned to their starting spot—at this time, they can read the class’s collective knowledge. By now every student has been engaged as both generator and consumer of knowledge, and the amount of material both created and analyzed/responded to is far in excess of what could come out of any discussion limited by who raises their hand and gets called on.

So how do you orchestrate a Carousel online? The “posters” become Google docs which you can set up and make editable by anyone in the class. You can make and distribute a master list of all the Google doc “posters” with each poster’s URL (the link to its Google doc), as well as a written schedule: In Round One, group 1 will go to URL #1, group 2 will go to URL #2, group 3 will go to URL #3…then in Round Two, group 1 will go to URL #2, group 2 will go to URL #3, and group 3 will go to URL #1, and so on. You can see one of my master lists below.

To help mitigate confusion, I color code each group by the color of their “marker” and give each group their own special emoji icon, to help them better see where they are supposed to be during each round.

When the activity begins, student groups are assigned to Zoom breakout rooms, which lets them confer as they visit their group’s assigned doc for a given round. They go on to add to or edit the doc, making sure any text they add is in their group’s assigned color. As the teacher, I can watch their edits in real-time by visiting the Google docs myself; in fact, I like having all the poster docs open at once for a “god’s-eye-view” of the whole procedure, something I could never do with a physical classroom Carousel. I can also temporarily join their breakout rooms to observe or be a part of their process that way. After class, I can use Google docs’ revision history feature to see which individual students within a group did, or didn’t, make contributions, which is another advantage over a physical Carousel.

As each round wanes I broadcast “one minute warnings” into everyone’s breakout rooms, and then I broadcast the command to switch to the next doc as per the schedule I gave them. At the very end, I call everyone back and do share-screens of each doc in turn, to review or amend the amassed wisdom of the whole class.

You, as well as your students, will certainly need to practice this procedure before it becomes routine. I strongly recommend using it first for a low-stakes, easy-access task (“what are your favorite movies?”) until everyone gets the hang of it, and then go on to apply it to more challenging academic content. Once you and your class have mastered the sequence of steps, a virtual Carousel can be the antidote to the dreaded plague of silent Zoom grids.


David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

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