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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Following Protocol

One of the activities my students (pre-service teachers) said they appreciated the most was providing them with an array of discussion/sharing out strategies that they could use with their own elementary students. What I really shared were protocols, many I had learned from my own professors, which could be easily adopted for various lessons and content.

Many came from the National School Reform Faculty's web site, which provides a comprehensive list of protocols for virtually every situation. On the site, you can select from protocols to foster critical thinking, creativity, closer reading, questioning, debates, observations, and more.

A protocol is generally defined as a specific procedure or defined set of rules. The value of protocols for students of all ages is that they provide the often, much-needed structure to make debates, discussions, and other collaborative activities in the classroom a success. Essentially, protocols provide the ground rules for who can speak when, how the sharing will occur, how long it should take, etc. Let me give you an example of how using a protocol helped further my classroom efforts.

At the time, I was teaching a second-grade class. My co-teacher and I had made some ground teaching the children to think critically and engage in lively discussions on topics, however, we found that a handful of students did most of the talking and some students did not participate at all. To remedy the problem, we used a version of a protocol entitled "Save the Last Word," which involves four students sitting in a circle and sharing one at a time. One person in the group shares his or her thoughts on the topic, then going clockwise, the other students each have one minute to respond to what the first person said. After everyone has shared, the person who started the conversation has one minute to say "the last word." By implementing this strategy, everyone in the class began having more of a voice—the equity had increased—and the discussions grew richer. The structure of the protocol prevented one or two students from verbally dominating the discussion and provided a safe environment for the quiet students to practice speaking skills and build their confidence.

Protocols can also foster deeper, more critical thinking and help students to see learning from new perspectives. This occurred when I used a protocol that required my undergraduate students to reduce an entire chapter from the course text to a single word. Each student had to select a sentence, phrase, and then finally a word that encapsulated the chapter, a challenging task! We wrote the words on a white board, and the students were amazed at what they had come up with. The chapter dealt mainly with curriculum and instructional strategies, however, the students (pre-service teachers) realized that the words that rang most true for them had nothing to do with curriculum but rather relationships, words such as caring, empathy, compassion, and inspiration. Of course, I had the students take a snapshot of the word list using their cell phones so they could remember the essence of their teaching philosophy and what truly was important in the classroom.

I would say selecting the right protocol for your lesson is more of an art than a science, and with experience, it will get easier. It helps me to first write out my lesson plan and understand my learning objectives. I then go and find the protocol that supports and enhances these learning goals. The trick is to begin using different protocols and finding what works for you. Before long, you have built a list of protocols you can continuously draw upon. Start by perusing the list from the website I suggested above and start structuring your classroom activities for success.