Thursday, June 7, 2018

Rule #1: Provide Think Time

Our second graders are on a field trip. It is quite a good field trip, novel and engaging, making them excited to be writers. But I am paying attention to who participates and why.

The second grade is a diverse group in the true sense of the word: racially, socio-economically, and in terms of learning profiles. Of the 22 students, about 8 to 10 participate often and actively during traditional, teacher-led lessons at school. These 10 tend to be whiter and come from more economically-advantaged families (although not exclusively, of course). 

The field trip is no exception. The man leading the class is energetic, hearty, and jovial. He asks fast questions and wants fast answers. He calls on the first hand up. 

“Where does our story take place? Who should be the main character? What does he look like? What is his name?” The questions come fast and furious, and only a few hands keep up. I am paying close attention to the race, gender, and learning profile of those who are getting called on. White boys are speaking most. White girls are second.

The man leading us is definitely in a hurry. “You’ve gotta have an idea right in your head when I call on you!” he says urgently, after calling on a few kids who didn’t have an answer at the tip of their tongues. 

Some students who try to have fast answers have their responses dismissed.

“Who should be the main character?” he asks.
“You!” says Wilfred, a student for whom English is a second language and who is clearly enamored of our host.
“Me? No!” the host replies.
“Oh. No,” Wilfred says, shaking his head as if the wrong words had just popped out. “I forgot.”

“What will happen next in our story?” our host asks.
“The dog smelled its own butt!” Jaquan says. Jaquan has some holes in his formal education and often needs extra time to process directions and content. 
“No, that’s too gross,” our host replies, and so neither Jaquan nor Wilfred’s ideas make it into our class story. 

“What is the doghouse made of?” is the host’s next question.
“Wood!” Teddy calls out. Teddy is a white boy who can do well in school but is often disengaged. He hasn't been speaking on this field trip until this moment.
“Raise your hand,” the host admonishes. Someone else raises their hand and says “wood,” which he accepts.

These three boys make attempts to participate in the fast-paced lesson. Who hasn’t even raised a hand? A few other quiet boys, and a bunch of the girls. The girls who haven’t raised their hands are primarily girls of color, girls for whom English is their Second Language, or girls with learning disabilities.

I start to feel urgent about the unequal participation, so I talk in whispers to students sitting near me. I repeat the host’s questions, asking them what they can come up with. By the time they think of something, he’s already two or three questions ahead of what we have been working on.

At some point, the other teacher on the field trip also wants to increase participation. She does it by saying, “Abby, we haven’t heard from you. Abby, Evita, do you have any ideas?” But they can’t, or won’t, come up with something when put on the spot like that, with no think time. 

Later, I sit with Roberto as he works on his own story. I ask him what he wants to name one of his characters. I then sit and count the seconds silently as he thinks. Twelve seconds later, he tells me a name. Twelve seconds. At the pace of our host, we would have answered three more questions by the time twelve seconds had passed.

I used to teach in ways that are somewhat reminiscent of how this host runs the field trip (although I hope never quite so fast-paced). Over the years, I’ve learned strategies to increase and equalize participation and access to the conversation. There are very simple routines I use when I teach that provide enough think time for everyone, communicate my expectation that everyone think and prepare to share their thinking, and minimize the domination of the quick, loud voices — voices which are often male, usually native English speakers, nearly always traditionally successful students, and, in a racially diverse school, often white.

Here are some of these simple routines I employ on a daily basis, in large and small groups.

Provide Think Time

The single most common strategy I use to ensure that everyone has time to process a question or direction is to provide Think Time. I explicitly teach what Think Time means and how students should use their Think Time, using anchor charts like this (which I completely stole from Kassia Wedekind and Christy Thompson).

This means that we all get comfortable with long silences of 30-60 seconds, sometimes longer. I usually ask students to indicate where they are in their thinking with their fingers.

“When you have one answer [or idea], put your thumb up in front of your chest. When you have another strategy [or idea], put up a finger.” This lets me know when they’ve had enough Think Time. I make sure everyone has at least one thumb up before I start asking for responses. (This thumb strategy is borrowed from Sherry Parrish and her Number Talks books.)

Choral response

I used to think that having a class respond chorally was old-fashioned and a bad idea. How do you know if students got the right or wrong answer if they all respond together? Won’t they just copy each other and recite mindlessly rather than thinking the question through? I have since learned that there are times when choral responses are preferable to individual ones, especially when paired with Think Time.

If I have asked a question that has a short, factual answer (such as What kind of syllable is this? or What goes with 10 to make 15?), I ask students to think quickly (for just a few seconds), indicate with a thumb when they have their answer ready, and then recite it all together.

“How many syllables are in this word?” I may ask. “Think it. Show me a thumb when you know.” Pause. “Now say it.”

The point of small questions like these is usually to keep students mentally engaged as the lesson moves on to something deeper and more important, or to provide short practice with a basic skill. By providing Think Time and then asking for a choral response, I make sure everyone is caught up and “minds on,” and everyone gets a chance to share their thinking. If they are wrong, they’ll hear that most people said something else and they’ll adjust their thinking. If I hear that a few people are wrong or there is disagreement, I’ll stop and we’ll discuss it.

Think, Pair, Share

There’s no need to write much here since this is a common enough practice, but I’ll mention how important it is to teach a clear structure for this routine and to practice that routine. I use this anchor and I actually have younger students touch their ears or mouths to show who is going to speak and listen first. I count backwards from 5 to 0 to give them time to find a partner, and when I get to one I always say, “Stand up if you don’t have a partner” so solo kids can find each other. We also talk about and practice how to look around the room to make sure everyone has a partner and how to include someone or change partners when it makes sense. We usually precede a Turn and Talk with Think Time.

Student-led discussions

… are not topics for this blog post, as the participation techniques I’ve laid out here are primarily for teacher-led lessons (the kind that was modeled during our field trip and which surely have a place in schools). But they bear mentioning as I have found them to be very effective tools for increasing participation (verbal and mental) among all students. I’ve written a bit about Hands Down Conversations here and you can find more on Kassia Wedekind and Christy Thompson’s blog devoted to the topic.
These structures are so simple and so tiny, yet they define most lessons I lead and they increase access to the conversation tenfold. Boiled down to two words, they can be summarized as Think Time. Well, Think Time and respectful silence so that others can think too. No one has their best ideas instantaneously, and our expectation should always be that students go deeper and think well rather than quickly. If I could give one gift to all teachers and field trip leaders, it would be the gift of Think Time.