Are your classrooms playing catch or basketball?

I am observing a lesson and the teacher is definitely playing catch.

Playing catch is a lovely way to spend the afternoon with my nephew.  Playing catch is a lousy way to teach a class.

Teacher:  Why did Americans revolt against the British?

Trevon: They wanted freedom.

Teacher: Good.  They did want freedom.  They wanted freedom from taxes and unfair laws.  What did they do to get their freedom?

This is how the class progresses.  The teacher tosses out a question.  The student catches it and lobs back to the teacher who calls balls or strikes.  A classroom playing catch can look and feel engaging if the teacher is charismatic or witty.  The kids can be smiling, laughing, and raising hands.  However in a classroom playing catch it’s unlikely that kids are listening to each other (they don’t have to because the teacher processes every statement) and it’s highly unlikely that reluctant students are thinking (they just wait for the teacher to pronounce right or wrong).  In a classroom playing catch most of the students are bystanders.  What might the classroom above look like if we started to play basketball instead of catch?

Teacher:  Why did Americans revolt against the British? As your teammates share, make sure to nod if you agree, shake your head emphatically if you disagree, and put your finger on your chin if you are unsure.

Trevon: They wanted to own their own land.

Teacher: Doesn’t speak-waits-calls on a student

Tomarra: They didn’t like taxes.

Teacher: Doesn’t speak-waits-waits- calls on another student

Taleesha: They didn’t like the British laws.

Teacher:  Show me with a one for land, two for taxes, or three fingers for unfair laws which reason was the most important reason for the American revolt.  Waits for the students to signal understanding. Most of us say British laws were the cause for the revolt-what are some examples from our reading that support your idea?

This classroom is playing basketball.  The ball (ideas) can pass in many different directions and not just back and forth to the teacher.  Since the ball can move in any direction everyone has to be ready.  Everyone has to listen and be listened to because they will be asked to comment upon and evaluate the ideas.  The students have to keep their eye on the ball (the idea) and not just the teacher.

What can we do to help our teachers and kids play more basketball?

Þ    Make it a practice that unless the statement is directly for the teacher the kids have to face their classmates when asking and answering questions.  The power of physically turning to your classmates often results in improved listening and sharing.  I have to make the same rule for staff meetings where far too often I became the circuit that all dialogue passes through and the conversation devolves into “sage on a stage”.

Þ    Give listeners tasks.  Listening is incredibly hard work and we frequently don’t give kids enough direction for their listening.  Think about how much structure the typical KIPP teacher gives to each activity, yet often we have classroom Q&A sessions or discussions where the kids don’t know what to do other than sit silently and stare at their teammates.  Tasks for listeners can be checks for understanding (nod if your teammate’s ideas make sense, shake your head if you need to hear more), or evaluation (thumbs up if your teammates are accurate, thumbs down if they missed).  A nice resource for this (passed via my favorite blog freetech4teachers.com) is this diagram of tasks for discussion participants.http://angelacunningham.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/teaching-students-to-dialogue/#

Þ    Get the Skillful Teacher (http://www.amazon.com/Skillful-Teacher-Building-Teaching-Skills/dp/1886822107/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254225769&sr=8-1) and read the list of actions a teacher can take after asking an open-ended question.  The wonderful thing about this list is that when we shared the list many of our teachers felt affirmed rather than deficient because it described what was already happening in our highest performing classrooms.

Þ    Have teachers watch a video of themselves and take transcription.  The practice of taking literal notes has made me realize how much we talk and I imagine it would have the same impact on the teachers.  If you really want to hammer the idea home draw a diagram (almost like a football play) of the classroom.  Draw lines to show questions and answers.  The difference between a classroom that is playing catch and a classroom that is playing basketball will be visually obvious.  Another way to create urgency around this issue is to crunch numbers and write the actual ratio of student: teacher speech in the room.  If nothing else this activity will encourage us to STOP REPEATING EVERYTHING KIDS SAY.

Þ    If you need to create urgency and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs then record an interview kids at the end of the day.  Ask them “What did you learn today?”  or “What was your ________class about?”  Note whether or not the kids talk about the content or the activity.

Does the analogy ring true?  What do you want your classrooms to look like and feel like?  Discussion, stories, and arguments are welcome.

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6 Responses to “Are your classrooms playing catch or basketball?”

  1. Kelly Says:

    This one was incredibly helpful. I was reminded of what I intend to do, but often forget. Also, I have a teacher who is looking for help and feedback and I think this is something he can definitely use.

    Thanks!

    (and miss you…)

  2. Laura Lensgraf Says:

    This blog entry is crucial for new teachers–new to teaching so many students in one room. While it is so satisfying to ask a question, see hands raised, call on a student who gives the right answer, the sad truth is…we don’t know that everyone “gets it” until we assess.

    I do love the idea of whole group discussion, but once again..how to get everyone involved and making sure they all get it. Hence, the assessment piece.

    Another thought. What if we gave notecards to students and ask them to write down one word or sentence about the topic–before the discussion begins? Each child will already have a thought and be willing to participate with their idea. This has worked for me in the past, and I am happy to remember it!!

    LL

  3. debryc Says:

    Thank you! I had my first large group discussion today, and I’m just not skilled at facilitating it, yet. This was fantastic and SO actionable.

  4. debryc Says:

    Do you have an example that shows how to plan for basketball?

    For example, what questions to ask, how to call on the students, what the students are doing while another student is talking? How to double-plan?

    I’m spinning my wheels trying to do this, and I think it’s because I don’t have multiple exemplars to work off of.

    Thanks!

    One of the moves I see teachers do to set up basketball is frame what kids are listening for. We often ask kids to tune into another kids’ answer without making it clear how they might respond. It’s the difference between asking our students to SLANT and asking them to SLANT and determine if they agree or disagree.

    For pacing I sometimes like to call with pointing rather than names when playing bball. Some teachers even build in accountable talk structures and cue them by saying things like “how about a little basketball?” so the kids can respond directly to each others ideas without the teacher as the center.

    Planning requires scripting a few questions that require dialogue, reasoning, and argument. These don’t have to be “what is the meaning of life?”. “What’s the best word to describe this part of the cell?” can generate bunches of answers and the kids can evaluate the strength of ideas against each other.

    • mrdolan Says:

      One of the moves I see teachers do to set up basketball is frame what kids are listening for. We often ask kids to tune into another kids’ answer without making it clear how they might respond. It’s the difference between asking our students to SLANT and asking them to SLANT and determine if they agree or disagree.

      For pacing I sometimes like to call with pointing rather than names when playing bball. Some teachers even build in accountable talk structures and cue them by saying things like “how about a little basketball?” so the kids can respond directly to each others ideas without the teacher as the center.

      Planning requires scripting a few questions that require dialogue, reasoning, and argument. These don’t have to be “what is the meaning of life?”. “What’s the best word to describe this part of the cell?” can generate bunches of answers and the kids can evaluate the strength of ideas against each other.

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