Saturday, February 6, 2016

Calling Them Out or Lifting Their Voice?

Until you know me, I'm a bit quiet.  Of course, I'm not sure my friends who know me well would ever say that about me.  The larger the group, the less I know the people, the more foreign the topic, the more likely I am to stay quiet.  We have students in our classroom who are the same way.  There are students who prefer a conversation one-on-one.  There are students who might, just might, talk in a small group.  There are students who don't feel comfortable sharing in a large group.

Recently I stumbled upon Alfie Kohn's article:  "Your Hand's Not Raised?  Too Bad:  I'm Calling on You Anyway."  In his article, Kohn makes the argument that calling on students who haven't volunteered is "a way to shame a kid."  As with all of Kohn's thinking, it really made me stop and ponder for a bit.  There are students who never wish to talk in a large group, and there are a variety of reasons why this might be so.  Should we just call on students who offer participation or those who are so interested that they just shout out their thinking to the group?  I'm not so sure...  

Calling on students who haven't "volunteered" is a tricky business.  We have to really know our students and no child should ever feel pressured or put on the spot.  I've had students I would never have called on in the large group.  These are the students I knew an eye glance or a quiet conversation later always seemed a more comfortable way to talk about our learning.  These are students I was always ready for the moment I knew I needed to listen.  The reasons students don't participate are many.  I'm guessing, as well, these may differ if you are 6, 12, or 16.  Students don't participate for a variety of reasons:  disengagement (sorry, Alfie, I know there's probably a better word), confusion, shyness, and feelings of not belonging only touch the surface of reasons why they may not participate.  

For a minute, however, let's think about the other side of this coin.  Let's think about those students who are rarely heard in our learning communities.  Let's understand we must really know our students here.  We do really need to think hard about the reasons a child may not be participating.  Let's agree that we must work hard to build strong communities that support one another: where listening and turn taking are essential practices.  Let's note Kohn's point that no child should ever be "forced" to join a conversation.  

However, for a minute, let's also ask ourselves about those quiet students who get lost in the sea of voices who push to rise to the top.  Let's, just for a minute, agree that their voices matter too.  In looking at different perspectives on calling on students Kohn adds, "A smiling, 'gentle invitation' ('Chris? I notice you haven't spoken for awhile. Would you like to chime in here?')—and periodic reassurances that anyone may choose to pass at any time—is completely different from a nonnegotiable demand that everyone must answer."  A few months ago I started working with a small group for interactive writing.  There were a few students unfamiliar to me, and Bella was one of them.  She didn't make much eye contact with me and didn't seem comfortable joining our discussions.  Other students monopolized our discussion and I'm not sure she could have entered the conversation if she would have tried.  I would talk with her briefly by herself as she came and went.  Eventually she would come whisper her thoughts in my ear and agree that I could share them.  Each day I noticed she worked harder and grew a bit more comfortable.  We'd smile knowingly at each other.  I'd quietly comment or gesture toward something she was attempting.  Now - every once in awhile - she is sharing her thinking with her peers and I love to see how quiet they get to listen to her.  I think this careful work helped her to know what she had to say mattered and helped to lift her voice.  

There is reason to pause as we read this article and think about the learning community we are nurturing.  He reminds us, "Ideally, moving beyond hand-raising or cold-calling is part of an ongoing project of creating a democratic, caring classroom community, one in which students are helped to feel a sense of belonging and given continuous opportunities to make decisions, individually and collectively."  I love the vision of first graders requesting responses from one another without my insertion into the conversation.  Maybe someday I'll get there.  (I really appreciate the work of Peter Johnston's in Opening Minds as I think about helping students develop agency, building dynamic learning frames,  and building strong communities.  See a few quotes at the bottom of this post.)  I agree with Kohn that students should really own conversations and their voices should be heard more than mine.  However, I'll continue to consider his assertion that calling on students who haven't volunteered is not something we should do.  I feel we have an obligation to gently nurture our communities to allow equal value of every child's thoughts in our classrooms.  


  1. Cathy,
    Your reflection and thoughtful consideration in lifting and validating student voices makes me stop to consider what my efforts might be. The graceful way you helped Bella (and her classmates) see the value of her thoughts is nothing short of brilliant. And yet, because I work alongside you daily, I know this is natural to you. You do this for students and colleagues daily, without even noticing.
    You and Kohn have given me thoughts to ponder as I continue working to build community and ownership in the classroom.

  2. Cathy,
    As usual your post has made me stop and think about my own classroom practices. Our year together is a journey. Teaching third graders how to listen and build a conversation is ongoing. I notice who is listening, but doesn't raise their hand. I call them my quiet ninjas. They prefer to communicate one on one. They like our turn and talk procedures. I'm always excited when one of these quiet ninjas finally raises their hand. Oh, but then there are the 3 or 4 or even 5 inattentive students who I have huddled at my feet in hopes this will help them stay focused. Sometimes I give them a "heads up" that I will be calling on them soon in hopes that they are prepared. This rarely leads to any productive comments but does probably make the student feel embarrassed or anxious. It probably effects the rest of my students as well. As I read your post this example popped into my head. I wondered when I had begun using this technique and for how long?! Yikes! It's always good to sit back and evaluate your practices. My inattentive crew will still sit close to me, but I'm sure I can find a more kinder, gentler way to include them.