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Random Calling Strategies That Work Anywhere

When I was in elementary and middle school, I sat in the back whenever I could. At that stage in my life I was not comfortable in school, so the best course of action was attempted invisibility. Sometimes I got away with it, but I also had teachers who saw through me and refused to accept my passivity. As much as I wouldn’t admit it at the time, I was grateful that they noticed me. Nowadays, we strive to be more purposeful with our inclusion of all student voices, and the techniques associated with having more intention behind our calling practices strengthens our relationships with every member of the class. Whether we teach virtually or in person, the following strategies ensure that we prioritize what all students have to contribute.

Call on the Person Who…

Superlatives can be used for good or evil. In a high school yearbook, it might not be desirable to go down in history as the “Person Who Most Needs a Watch.” However, the strategy can be more helpful when calling on students. Categories to use for this purpose might be: person who has a birthday closest to the current date, person who is wearing the brightest shade of blue, person who has more than three pets, person who lives farthest away, person who ate the most fruit that day, and so forth. Teachers can have fun thinking about different ways to do “person who,” and students can also share their ideas to make calling practices a shared classroom experience. The only caveat to this strategy is that the criteria must be innocuous rather than potentially divisive. Be sensitive to anything that might highlight inequity, such as “person with the newest car.”

Tap Into Your Inner Content Nerd

If pressed, I can still recite complex passages from a bevy of Shakespeare plays, thanks to nearly 20 years of teaching them repeatedly. Every now and then, it helps to show kids how much we love the content we teach. Why not use that to our advantage with calling practices? English teachers might create a rotation of author cards that go on each student’s desk and get changed out every few weeks, using the author’s name as a way to select students. A chemistry teacher could use the elements in the periodic table in the same way. However we choose to tap into the subjects we teach in the calling process, we should not be afraid to get a little silly with it, or even to make it a deeper learning experience for students. For example, if my assigned element is chlorine, perhaps I present some detailed information about chlorine when our chemistry class gets to that part of the unit. In any content area or grade level, this strategy works by combining the “what” of our curricular content to the “how” of students demonstrating their learning.

Keep Using Digital Tools

Any number of online wheels, complete with bells and whistles (and fun music or confetti) are now part of standard classroom use for calling on students. Why stop doing that? No matter where we are, using online tools like Flippity or Wheel of Names can make class feel like a game show. The added benefit of an online tool is that the calling process is transparent in its randomness; students cannot suspect we are purposely changing who we call on, since they see the wheel at the same time we do. Other digital tools can also assist us in our calling practices, such as polling features (Zoom has its own) like Doodle or Poll Everywhere. Students who respond to a poll can be divided into groups and called on strategically to focus on a particular area of instruction. However we choose to use the many digital options available, we can maintain their relevance no matter where we happen to be teaching.

Make a Tally

When I observe classes, I use simple slash marks on a quickly scribbled seating chart diagram to tally which students are being called on, and how often. More frequently than not, some students have a heavy tally score while others have nothing. On any given instructional day, we might not be paying attention to the students we call upon. Why not hold ourselves accountable? It might seem challenging to tally each student we call on, but if we organize our method in advance (a simple chart on a clipboard works wonders), it is possible to keep track of what we’re doing. After we have gathered data from a time period that might indicate any kind of pattern (a week, a month, etc.), we can analyze and reflect upon what we learn. It might be hard at first to notice that we only call on a select group of students and think about why we do that, but grappling with our actions is a necessary component of professional growth.

Calling on students might seem like just something that we do, but we are often unaware of the impact our actions hold. For example, one of my children became convinced that her teacher disliked her because from her young perspective, someone who ignored her raised hand must not have wanted to hear from her. As one might imagine, my daughter stopped raising her hand, and the teacher probably never realized what happened. Adjusting our calling practices takes awareness and intention, but it is a fairly easy way to tweak our practices for the better, and to continue our pursuit of inclusion for all students.  

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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