Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hand v Stick: Choice of Justice

Pulling sticks. Calling on hands. Calling on everyone. A Wheel of Fate. How to be sure we're giving all students a chance to answer while not putting students on the spot? Where's the line between checking understanding, checking attention, and calling attention to an embarrassed student? This is one of those Education Debates (tm) that everyone has an opinion on, and some would fight to their last breath to defend their side, waving research both data-driven and anecdotal. Like many Education Debates (tm) I don't have a strong side. Never be hardline about anything, except not being hardline about anything. Teaching requires too much flexibility to ever put your foot down too hard.*

That said, this feels like there should be an answer. Which, I think, is a fallacy. We aren't Stephen Colbert, we don't have to think with our feelings. We should dig in.

One of the things my student teacher is working on this year is being sure she's calling on a wide variety of our kids. She realized on her own very quickly that it's always the same five kids with their hands up, and that there are some more than willing to never say a word all day, and still more who would speak up but figure that other kid has the answer. In our conversations we set a goal for her that she'd be better at mixing it up. To help demonstrate to her what I was seeing I printed a class list and put a check next to names every time they spoke over an entire lesson block. At the end a few had four or five checks and many, too many, had not even one. Nothing like making a point concrete. Veronica is a great student, as well as being a great student teacher, and she took this to heart without taking it to ego and immediately worked on correcting the issue. I mentor teach a lot like I teach teach, which means I helped her see the issue and then asked her to fix it in a way she thought would work, and then together we would massage and fine tune. In this way she finds her own solutions and, next year when she has her own class, she has the tools to troubleshoot those things that come up that aren't in any university course.

I will mention that her university, um, supervisor (?), during her observations, has noted the same thing- that she was calling on too many kids with hands up. This, I think, speaks to a deeper issue. We'll get there, keep your comments holstered.

Her solution was to keep a running record for herself on the board as she calls on students. Every time she calls on a student she quickly writes that student's name down. This visual aid lets her see when she's overusing one student and missing another.

I am not thrilled with this solution, and when we talked about it after school it took me some time to articulate why. Watching her do it I was happy she'd found a solution, but I wasn't happy with the solution she'd chosen. It's inelegant for certain. It takes a precious second or two of her concentration every time a student speaks. But I'm also not upset with it. It does solve the problem, and it has been helping. We both recognize that it's a first step to a better way and not a habit she wants to build. In her defense, and I feel like I use this excuse a lot but it's a Truth this year, we've got 36 kids. That's a lot to keep track of for me in in my eleventh year. Remember your student teacher year, when you didn't have all your Teacher Senses yet? When you were still having to think about All The Things rather than have them running as subroutines while you focused on the important stuff? Writing names is a starting point, and starting points are good. You can build from starting points. But build to where?

We sat and hashed it out. I believe that mentor teaching is conversing, not commanding. We're in this together. What follows is the basic shape of our conversation as it snaked naturally through the following points. We both know that using hands is bad. That's a perfect way to never hear from at least a third of the class. But she's also conscious of making the kids self-conscious. So calling on students who don't have their hands up might backfire. On the other hand (get it?), we have students who aren't paying attention and might calling on them like that remind them to be on the stick? But that's using public embarrassment as a motivator and that's not what we're about. So we give think time, which is important and another thing new teachers either forget or underestimate the length of because you're thinking faster than the clock is moving and not realizing the kids aren't as keyed up on coffee and adrenaline as you are.

But what to do after think time? Three choices- move to turn and talk, circulate and let kids know they'll be chiming in with their answer when we come back as a group, or a combination of the two. Turn and talk is good because then even if the student isn't talking to the whole group they're talking to someone. The warning that they're going to be called on is good because that gives the student a chance to collect their thoughts. And the combination is good because it gives the student a chance to collect their thoughts and the thoughts of the students around them.

But then who do you call on? Just the kids you told you'd be calling on. Anyone who doesn't get to share out gets to turn and tell the person next to them what they were going to say for five seconds, because you know you've got those kids that will just explode if they don't get to share out to someone. That values everyone's voice, doesn't it? Or call on every hand? Sometimes calling on hands is ok, isn't it? Let everyone share? But that takes a long time in a normal sized classroom. And if they're dying to share out specifically to the Teacher than says more that they're trying to please us and less that they're trying to learn, doesn't it?

So we move to a Random Student Chooser. Names or numbers on sticks in a cup. Pull a stick and if your name comes out of the cup you come up with an answer. I used this for a long time. I stopped because it stopped working for me like I wanted, and I didn't like kids freezing up, but it's not a bad option when you're still building your tool belt. Still, then it puts students on the spot who might not have an answer and we don't want to embarrass kids. If the student doesn't know the teacher response might be, "You can ask a friend." Then that friend tells the original student and the original student tells you.

The problem with all of these is they're Teacher Centered. All of these assume the teacher in the front of the room lecturing and the students seated and listening. Not ideal. Sometimes needed, occasionally useful, but not ideal. There's always technology that allows everyone to share, valuing student voice, allowing student conversation, putting the onus on them rather than us. Sites and tools like Back-channels, Padlet, and TodaysMeet. Even the quiet students get in the game that way. But that requires everyone to have access to tech. Not a reality for us, not yet. *looks wistfully into the middle distance*  Someday though.

The best option is to have everything be student-centered all the time, with little teacher talk and little whole group discussion. But whole group can have value. There's no reason to throw something completely away because it only works some of the time. That means you have a tool in your belt that works some of the time! Differentiation means keeping those Sometimes things.

All of this brought our conversation (remember, the framing device for the last few paragraphs has been a discussion between my student teacher and me) all the way around to the big idea of- We Need A Mix Of Things. Which is at the heart of what I believe about teaching. If we're going to hold tight to the war cry that students aren't standardized then neither should teaching styles be. Sometime lecture is good, sometimes group work, sometimes tech, sometimes a worksheet isn't the devil (if it's well written, yeah I said it), sometimes a project or a build is better, sometimes quietly reading out the book will be just what a kid needs. Might need to get those textbooks out of the ditch for that last one. They aren't all bad. Again, especially if you're a new teacher building your world as you go. And yes, I'm leaving all those that vague because I don't know your kids, I don't know your curriculum, and I don't know your style. I just know that more options are better than less and experimentation is good.

So we'll mix it up. We'll build a Wheel Decide with kids' names. We'll have a Cup o' Destiny full of sticks. We'll have turn and talk and "hey, you're up next" and "Who knows this". And we'll have lots and lots of kids talking to kids explaining things to kids. We will make our classroom a place where it's safe to speak up, safe to try, safe to share, and safe to sometimes stay quiet and watch.

Remember sixteen hundred words ago when I mentioned her university supervisor noting that she was calling on too many hands? That means that the teacher-centered model is still at the forefront of at least one teacher education program. If it wasn't then her comment wouldn't have been, "You need to move away from calling on students with their hands up." It would have been, "You're talking too much." My personal theory is that Teaching is easier to teach in a university classroom than the more complicated and involved student-centered model. It's also a case of How We've Always Done, and I don't know if you've seen the memes, but rumor is that's no excuse to keep doing that way. But redesigning how teacher education is done is a blog (book) for another time.

I honestly don't know if this is the best way, and I know I'm missing other options. I'm hoping that the comment section gets used to explore other ideas and techniques. This is one of the benefits of being a mentor teacher, to be honest- I'm forced to question and justify my own practice and occasionally I don't have a great answer.

*except guns in schools for "protection". That's the dumbest idea on Earth and I'll argue against it until one of us starves to death, and then I'll become one of those ghosts that you can hear in the winds and creaks of doors, still arguing about what a stupid idea it is.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. Love the thinking on this topic. I too like having a variety of strategies - sometimes I even let the conversations overlap by saying 'no need to put your hands up' so that they can work on understanding social etiquette without explicit direction (and my rebel kids at home will sometimetimes raise their hands to get my attention - usually when they are doing cursive script on their homework to earn bonus marks.....). Sometimes I use my "wheel app" with the understanding that there are a variety of options including "I'm not sure" which are valid and accepted. And yes, sometimes I will go with the "hands up" crowd as a bit of a nostalgic nod to the good old days (that weren't so good) - great share and love your teacher-mentor approach!

    1. Yeah! I forgot about the Everyone Call Out Like This Is a Real Conversation option, which is totally viable, especially if the class is trained in the expectations for it.

  2. I wish I had gotten this much guidance back when I was new from my mentor teacher or my Practicum supervisor. Student teaching felt like being asked to perform to someone else's tune with someone else's instrument.

    1. Mentor teaching is a really specific thing and I think a lot of it is done wrong. Its become a passion project of mine to try to rethink how we mentor student and new teachers.

  3. A couple years ago one of our admins (I teach at a high school) followed a student around all day. The student did not talk about the content at all, not even once. We spent a couple years in a plc team inspired by the lab cycle process used in some Japanese schools to develop and try strategies to increase student interaction.

    We quickly got to the same conclusion -- it's a toolbox of techniques, but not too many. We found better success by having sentence frames/stems to help students craft their responses and giving them processing time before their opportunity to share.

    We've done: turn and talk
    lines of communication, which can be fun but man do our kids have a hard time with it. I like to use this one to practice active listening skills (side a shares to their partner, side b responds with "I heard you say...")
    four corners (divide the class into 4 groups and they share out only to their group)
    quiz quiz trade
    Kick me ( https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/making-vocabulary-lesson-interactive )

    1. Love those choices. And I agree, too many options and you and your kids are overwhelmed.

  4. Although it's still teacher-centered, I like this for checks for understanding: "Raise your hand if you think you know the answer." Pause. "Keep it up if you'd like to answer." Gives me a quick read of the room without putting kids on the spot. I also found kids succumbed to inertia and were more likely to keep their hands raised.

    Also, it sounds like you are doing great as a mentor. The best ones I interviewed for my dissertation weren't the "experts"; they were always trying to share their thinking and grow with their student teachers.

  5. Sharing this with my nephew who will begin student teaching soon. Smiling because I love to read about the conversations between your student teacher and you.. Really smiling because those 36 students, all of them, are really in just the right place at the right time for all of you.

  6. Emotionally, I don't like calling on shy kids who don't feel like speaking in front of a group of people.

    Intellectually, I feel like...this is just part of growing up. Does it feel uncomfortable? Yeah. But this is how you learn. This experience will mature you.

    This is how I feel as a parent, too. Mom instincts tell me to protect and nurture, but doing that too much is a disservice. I have met children whose parents fight tooth and nail against teachers; parents who never believe their children are wrong, that the teacher is somehow "picking on" the student when really, teacher is only asking for a modicum of effort in class.

    You are doing your children no favors. I don't want to sound like the bitter, heartless teacher of a 1980s teen movie, but it doesn't bode well for the future of this student.

    1. Sorry for posting this twice, I was trying to reply directly to Nora but my phone had issues on the first try:
      I'm an introvert. I'm also autistic. As a kid I almost always did have my hand up. But when I didn't I had really good reason for really not wanting any attention in me at all. (I couldn't handle it. I would have melted down.)
      There needs to be room for learner variability and individual needs.

    2. I have to disagree with this comment. Answering questions in front of the class is a huge risk, especially for fifth graders. People, especially kids, are more likely to take those kinds of risks if they feel safe. Calling on a more introverted or shy student (or a student with a slower processing speed, or a student with social-emotional needs, or or or) is going to have the effect of making them feel *less* safe in class and that's going to really negatively impact learning.

      I wonder what skill is being taught by expecting all children to answer questions on-the-spot about newly learned material in front of 36 other people. I've never been told to do that in 18 years since graduating high school, and it would be embarrassing for me as an adult to have to do so on command. Doug described a whole range of options for students to participate and share their knowledge. This is the real-life skill, in my opinion.

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  8. Another tech tool for the toolbelt...flippity.net. Thanks for such an engaging post!