you WILL participate

Students often have a true lack of background knowledge.  Vocabulary that I used to assume students had mental access to is in fact nonexistent.  Examples at the 8th grade level include words like increase, decrease, and submerge.  Not only do students need to gain exposure to the often tricky content specific science vocabulary1, but other lower level everyday terminology needs to be practiced as well.  To work on that vocabulary piece I’ve finally worked my own version of the “Word Wall” into class.

Wall space in my room is at a premium, particularly at the front off class where most teachers would venture to place their Word Wall.  I merely use a slide with the words on PowerPoint.  This way everyone can see them and working with the wall is part of a routine at the start of class.  We begin with the Daily Thinker (warm-up), review the Key Questions, and then read through the Word Wall.  After the Words I do what I just call “Questioning” for lack of a better term.  To get all of this to work I use a stack of index cards with every students name on it.  For the Word Wall, I pick the top name and have the student read each word with the class repeating after each word.  I lead it the first time the words are introduced (yes, I also have them write definitions, hate me if you must, I have my reasons).  No one is exempt from this.  I could just as likely have an ELL or special education student read them as a regular student.  They should all know how!

I have found this forces students to be accountable for being able to say and read the words.  Students know the expectation is that they can read the words.  The vocabulary students practice isn’t just unit specific content vocabulary, it often includes words frequently used within the topic that is not content specific (like “submerge” for buoyancy).  The cards are used into the “Questioning” session which is a variation of several techniques including Doug Lemov’s Cold Call, No Opt Out, and Stretch2.  I have a set of predetermined questions that I ask students as I go through every card in my class deck.  I make sure I get to EVERY student EVERY day.  What seems to work is to start the questions for a unit at the basic recall level and then work up to (Stretch) higher levels of thinking and complex ideas.  From asking about what volume is to asking how to determine volume of an irregularly shaped object.

The hardest part is keeping the questions flowing quickly as is needed for a good Cold Call session.  In my class of 28 students Questioning goes from a quick romp through predetermined questions to a slog through knee high mud.  I’ve already received positive feedback from students about the Word Wall and Questioning.  Also of import is that I use the cards throughout class.  I infrequently ask for a show of hands for answers to questions or volunteers to read.  Hand raising now is reserved as an assessment technique.

1 Atomic number, mass number, and atomic mass are just one example.  Imagine learning this terminology as an ELL.  Boggles the mind.

2 from Teach Like a Champion

Thoughts on TPTs

My student teacher has started to incorporate some different Total Participation Techniques into her planning.  She was stuck on using only Cold Call and a few other questioning techniques.  I wanted her to try out some others like Think-Pair-Share and Reader’s Marks.  We were reminded of how the application of these techniques is far more challenging than suggested by the authors who promote them.  There are so many nuances in the classroom that these techniques need to be tweaked for.  For instance, Reader’s Marks are really no good to us as a participation technique if we only discover after the fact that some students weren’t actually reading at all.  She had them complete a reading using Reader’s Marks individually.  In pairs where students take turns reading we can actively tell if they are reading the text or not and students can help identify key words and main ideas together.  It is in combination that these techniques are the most powerful.  The use of literacy strategies WITH a TPT brings out the best in both.  As we work through a few more techniques I’ll post, but overall getting them to work smoothly is still elusive.

Keep it Under 27

Like many teachers my class size ballooned over the last 3 years.  Our district had long been blessed with smaller class sizes;  I rarely had a class over 23.  Last year I had a class of over 30 and this year my largest is 28.  Adjustments had to be made.

A lab or activity that had been possible before becomes a safety and/or logistical nightmare with upwards of 27 students.  One of my favorite labs for students is a density column lab (a modified form of this one) which really has them mentally work out comparative densities with a bonus that it’s also colorful and fun.  The number of materials and student participation just aren’t there with over 27 students.

Labs are an obvious casualty of increased class size; however, participation techniques are also negatively affected.  Consider the popular Think, Pair, Share.  In a class of 24 you would have 12 kids whispering to each other throughout the room.  Even in a class of 24 its sometimes difficult to keep this just under a dull roar.  Having 15 students sharing with each other in a class of 30 creates an unreasonable amount of noise and distraction.  Not is the decibel level is higher, but there is a higher concentration of students.  Instead of maybe 5 ft between pairs there is only 3ft.  How is it possible that just a few more students create that much more noise?  I can’t tell you the exact physics other than to say there is a definite carrying capacity for students in a room (and I have a large room) in regards to these types of techniques.

Other techniques such as Take a Stand are possible with specific planning for the larger number of students.  A smaller classroom would be make this technique all but impossible.  There is barely enough room for the teacher to circulate and desks are crammed up to 3 of the 4 walls.  Card showing  techniques are a much better option I feel for a larger class size, but it is harder to guage individual responses and therefore assess what they know.  These card techniques involve having student hold up cards with something written on either side (T or F, Conclusion or Inference, Quant or Qual).  Surveying a room of 27 or more cards and making sure all students have participated can be challenging.

Now I’m not suggesting that all participation techniques can’t be done or even the ones mentioned can’t be done, just that planning for them in a room of 27 or more students requires special attention and accomodations.  The techniques need to be tweaked and training behaviors becomes even more essential.  After speaking with several colleagues we arrived at the number of 27 as the tipping point for class rooms.  Get below that and its not much different than 24.  Get above that and you really need to take a second look at the plans you have.