How teachers get cold calling right

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Let’s begin a discussion about cold calling (on students, that is) with a couple of disclaimers:

One: Students with medical accommodations must be respected. If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Two: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Now, let’s get to it, starting by defining the term: Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it usually stirs negative emotions: fear, anxiety, embarrassment.

This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 
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If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

Two cold calling scenarios that hurt discussions

One: calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Two: the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.

If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer.

So, what’s good about cold calling?

Quick reminder: With care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise.

You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation of effective cold calling is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might hear in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

Another awesome rapport-builder

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it, like this:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something.

More great writing practices

This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.

Then…

Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

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Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

Summing up

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques give students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class. Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students toward speaking with confidence.

Are you cold calling on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get this conversation started:

twitter-cold-call-conversationtwitter-cold-call-2

Please add your thoughts in comments below, or on our Facebook page, or on the #HackLearning Twitter stream.

Author: Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers. He teaches English and Journalism to students in grades 9-12 at Hightstown High School in New Jersey.