Changing the Engagement Culture in Your Classroom

From the time we begin school, we assimilate into the practices and routines of the classroom.  Raising your hand, asking for a pass to the bathroom, listening, lining up, and other regimens, collectively, are rarely observed in environments besides classrooms but are readily accepted as the norm in school life.  Many of these practices help institute an environment that is conducive to learning, yet one practice, raising hands, deserves a critical review.

Raising one’s hand signals to the teacher that you know the answer.  Calling on someone who probably knows the answer can help move the lesson along.  The practice, however, allows for 20 or more other students to remain disengaged. It also doesn’t provide enough information to the teacher to inform next steps.  Sure, Johnny may know the answer, but what about the other students in the class?

Teachers hoping to improve classroom engagement, formative assessment practices, and learning, can  discontinue hand-raising and choose from a variety of other options.  It isn’t easy, however.  Teachers, as well as students, have been assimilated into these classroom habits and habits are hard to break.  I’ll never forget piloting a new science kit in a kindergarten classroom and calling upon a student randomly to answer a question.  Even at the ripe age of 6, this young student knew that this wasn’t playing by the rules.  “You can’t do that; I didn’t raise my hand!” she informed me.  It took a few more lessons for her to accept this new practice.

If you are ready to increase engagement, increase learning, and inform your instructional decision-making, try some new methods to replace hand-raising, such as the following:

Individual White Boards – this method is fairly common but not used nearly enough.  When asking a question, such as, “what is 3 x 2,” don’t call on a student raising their hand.  Instead, have EVERY student write their answer on an individual white board and hold the board up.  You can then scan the room to see which students had it right and which were wrong and decide whether or not a re-teaching was in order.  If everyone has it right, move along!

Fair Squares or Popsicle Sticks – I hadn’t seen this method called “fair squares” until visiting Winsor one day! In either method, a child’s name is written on cardboard squares or on wooden sticks so that a student’s name can be pulled randomly to answer a question.  The key to this method is to ask the question first, wait, then pull the square or stick.  In this way, no one knows if their name will be chosen so they all work on the answer.  If you pull the name first, this gives the 20+ other students a break from thinking (and we wouldn’t want that!).

Group Check – In this method, each student works on the answer individually then check their answers with their peers in their assigned groups.  If everyone gets the answer or if those that didn’t get it right got an explanation from their group, there is no need for the teacher to go over the problem.  If there’s confusion or disagreement, that’s the time to spend more time.  (Another practice we need untraining from is going over problems if there’s no reason to go over the problems!).

Technology – there’s more programs that are introduced in every school year to poll the classroom for questions or views.  Below are a few available for free:

Poll Everywhere – This polling software allows one to easily set up polls and present them from a computer, Chromebook or smartphone. Participants text in their answers while results display in real-time for all to see.

Kahoot! is a game-based program that allows teaches to set up multiple-choice questions to present to students.  Responses can then be accessed via a web browser or the Kahoot app.

Socrative is another game-type program that can be used to assess student learning and improve engagement.

Instructional rounds is providing for great discussions among our administrators and is identifying the need for small tweeks in instructional approaches, including the need for more “total participation” techniques.  It is through continual, incremental improvements that we all get better and better at our craft.

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