Jessica was always a good student. In pre-k, she could explain magnetic fields to her friends, read basic books, and play such imaginative games that you’d think she was auditioning for Broadway. Now, as a second-grader, Jessica is quick to answer all of the teachers’ questions. Quite frankly, my daughter is a show-off. Being in the same class with Jessica is not easy.
As a teacher coach, I observe classrooms each week where students don’t have a voice. Teachers rely on the Jessicas of the world to carry the class. Soon enough, students recognize that they can fade into the background. They also learn that there are risks: “If I get it wrong, my teacher will be disappointed because she is always looking to Jessica to get the right answer and validate her teaching. If I get it wrong, my peers will know that I am not as smart as Jessica.”
“Equitable classroom practices” is a phrase that is often thrown around when describing a high-quality curriculum. But there are some small technical things that teachers can do to ensure that students, like the ones in Jessica’s class, get access to high-quality questions and think time. Teachers need to practice “creating safety in small.”
“Creating safety in small” is simple. Here are three ways to do it:
- Start at the Individual Level: This technique is sometimes coined as “Everybody Writes” (Lemov et al., 2016). Give students independent writing or practice time. The teacher walks around and observes the answers. The teacher identifies students who have strong answers or answers that would facilitate good learning from the class. In some cases, the teacher says to the student, “I would love for you to share this when we come back to the whole group.”
- Move to Pairs: Have students share their responses with each other. The teacher gives them specific prompts to discuss. The teacher validates answers.
- Whole Group Share: The teacher asks individual students to share their responses or the responses of their peers.
Let me give you an example from a class I observed over two weeks after implementing “safety in small.” Ms. Johnson is an eighth-grade math teacher. She has 24 students in her second-hour class. I quickly noticed a pattern, and I started to tally who was answering her questions. In the 20-minute observation, three out of 24 students spoke, but 23 out of 24 wrote something down. We had a coaching conversation where I presented this data. I said, “We can build off of the fact that the students are willing to try in written form.” The next week, I observed for another 20 minutes. 100% of the students wrote, 100% of the students shared with a partner (although some conversations got off track), and she had seven students share out loud who were different from the week before. In reflection, Ms. Johnson said, “I got such a better picture of which students were getting the lesson. I had no idea Jermaine was struggling so much with this.” Access. Equity.
Why is this a powerful move?
- According to Deci and Ryan (2002), three social conditions need to exist in order for people to feel motivated:
- Competence is the feeling of mastery of their environment or task. When students have an opportunity to try a problem or question, they are able to get the feedback that they need from their teacher to experience mastery.
- Relatedness is the feeling of connection. Students are pushed to connect with a peer in partners, fostering stronger relationships.
- Autonomy is the feeling of control or agency. Students get choice as to how they share in the larger class.
- Students get a chance to check their thinking before they risk the stage of the larger class share. They get the opportunity to really gut check their thinking and pressure test it with a peer.
- It gives students access to high-quality questions or problems that they may not have a chance to process because students like Jessica always cut in.
Students must feel safe to answer questions in class. It’s how students process content. It’s how teachers receive feedback as to whether the students are mastering the content. Slowing the pace of questioning and “creating safety in small” allows students to engage effectively in any classroom.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Lemov, D., Hernandez, J., & Kim, J. (2016). Teach like a champion 2.0 field guide: A practical resource to make the 62 techniques your own. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.