When that happens, I often feel like the teachers you see on the movies – standing there, asking a question, waiting, answering it myself, asking a simpler question, waiting, answering it myself………
How many of you have felt that way? Come on, raise your hand – you know that’s happened!
My class this year is like that. I have about 3 students who always have their hand raised, begging to be called on. Then there are the other 28 who sit back, either completely zoned out or hoping I won’t notice them.
Here are some strategies that I have found to be successful *disclaimer – not all strategies work all the time and some strategies don’t work with certain students and using these strategies will not make you rich…
First, if it’s a piece of information they’re going to need, like what is a setting, or what is the predicate of a sentence, I have them repeat the definition with me as a class several times. Then, I ask what it is, and remind them they should all have their hands up. Then, I call on someone, get the correct answer (I usually stack the deck and call on someone I can be sure will have the right answer), give praise for getting it right, ask it again, call on someone, get the right answer, praise them, ask it again…you get the idea. Then, throughout the year, I bring that back up and ask the question. The kids like this method because it lets them feel like they know an answer and because I try to make it fun and silly. Sometimes I’ll act surprised that they know it (that usually gets a laugh, since they have been drilled on it so many times).
Second, I’ll give them about 30 seconds to check their answer with their group. I find this is effective because if they don’t know the answer, they hear it from a group member, and if they do know it, they can check to make sure they’re right before saying it in front of the class.
Third, I use sticks to randomly call on students, AFTER having them check their answer with their group. Then, I don’t let them say I don’t know. Occasionally I’ll give them a hint, or let them off the hook after some uncomfortable silence. In those cases, I ask the group if they helped out that student. If so, it’s a good lesson for them to listen when the group is talking. *Note – I warn them before talking to their group that they will be called on randomly and I won’t take I don’t know. Otherwise, it feels like a “gotcha” situation.
Fourth, I have a poster on my wall with things to say other than “I don’t know”.
- Can I please have more information?
- Can you please repeat the question?
- Can I please have more time?
By reminding them that they have other options, they are more likely to try to answer. Occasionally they’ll use one of those questions and I always praise them for doing that. We’ve all zoned out during a presentation before, so I try to be understanding about that (but they’re not allowed to zone out every time!)
- Finally, I have been known to threaten that if they don’t talk to their groups and participate with the discussion (and pretend to listen to me) they’ll have to write their answers instead. I know we’re not supposed to use writing as a punishment, but I say “I need to know you’re understanding this and if you won’t talk to your group or me about it, I have to ask you to write your answers down.” That usually motivates them to be part of the discussion.
One bonus strategy: (and this one takes a while to set up) I also spend a lot of the year building up their confidence and telling them how smart they are. Often, I find these kids are convinced they don’t know the right answer. By demonstrating, out loud, that I believe in them and believe they can do this, I find later in the year they’re more likely to try to answer questions. I also point out times when I don’t know something or when I got it wrong. I tend to laugh at myself a lot, making them feel like they can be wrong, too.