Ask anybody: I’m not some sort of god teacher in the classroom. But the other day a teacher complimented me on my classroom management, in particular my ability to hold attention without using my voice. And I was like, yeah! That’s something I do very much on purpose.
I forget if I came up with this on my own or (more likely) picked it up from something I read, but I try very very hard not to interrupt the flow of the class with a redirection to a kid. None of that “I’ll wait” or “settle down” or “I need all eyes up here.” Not if I can help it, at least.
The thought is that the content of the class shalt not be interrupted, and I undermine this premise when I use my voice to interrupt. Plus, it’s just confusing to kids who are following along to hear this other thing, and then to dive back in. PLUS, it directs everyone’s attention to some kid and their shenanigans. PLUS PLUS, it creates a little pocket of energy in the room for a few moments and that can get filled with nonsense or accidental attention-grabbing things.
So I use looks, pauses, taps on the shoulder, etc. I know (I think) a lot of other teachers do this stuff, but I do it too and maybe it’s worth sharing.
Very frequently there are kids that aren’t feeling confident and you can sort of feel them withdraw from the classroom. Very frequently there is an implicit contract these kids have with their teachers: I will be silent and confused, but you will not mind because I will not cause you an ounce of trouble.
Forget that! Cause me trouble.
So there’s this thing that sometimes happens in my classrooms. It’s a bit awkward, but I think it works out OK, most of the time. Which is that sometimes I’ll see a kid who is settling into that withdrawal, and so I’ll cold call on them.
Putting a kid on the spot in front of the class — especially one who is having a rough time in class — is a tricky proposition, and my purpose is not to embarrass a kid for not engaging. It’s just that they’ve got this contract, and they’re trying to figure out if I’m on board or not. But I’m not — I’m going to invite you in to whatever our class is doing, and I’m going to keep on doing that.
“Sarah, do you agree that 40 divided by 4 is 10? Why does that make sense, do you think?”
I’d be curious to hear the recording of that conversation. In that moment I felt myself trying very hard to balance two contradictory stances: a jokey, non-threatening, supportive teacher who is very persistently insisting that you share your thinking.
I also felt myself very much caught up in another contradiction, which was not signaling to Sarah (or the rest of the class) that I was “dumbing things down” for her, while also trying to find a mathematically interesting way for her to engage. This was also a high-wire act, even if it only lasted a few seconds. In these moments one of my moves is to just produce more and more on my own, but to be insistent that the student take on why.
“So from skip-counting we know that ten 4s makes 40. Why would that help us solve 40 divided by 4?”
Sarah ended up saying something nice, which was that 4 x 10 made 40 and that this gave you the answer to the division problem. (Did I mention yet that this is in my 3rd Grade class? I should’ve.)
Having survived this ordeal, I saw her withdrawing again, not looking at the board, not hearing other people, the sorts of things that raise all of my alarms as a teacher.
So I did something unexpected, which is for the next problem I cold-called on Sarah again. And we did that same thing, the same conversation. DEFINITELY a gamble — this is a risky teaching move. Looking at her face, I started getting very nervous…I thought tears were a distinct possibility. But what could I do? I had to keep going. So I turned back to that last problem.
“You had said 4 x 10 makes 40 to help with the last problem. So how can we think about 48 divided by 4?”
She made it through that conversation. Thank god for her friend, Kya, who gave her a big high-five after that conversation wrapped up. Sarah put on a big smile.
This was a big risk, but at least this time I feel that it paid off. Sarah is pretty good at skip-counting, and she was able to use that to solve some problems on her own without any prompting from me. I was able to give her a high-five also, to compliment her on thinking to do that all on her own.
And though certainly it could have gone bad, the whole point of this to me was that, no, I do not accept the terms of that contract.