The “Pop Stick Method”: equitable or just cold-calling?

Years ago, I was introduced to the idea of having a cup of pop sticks, you know the one,  with each of my student’s name on it, ready to go in my classroom.  This is a super common technique used in classrooms.  It is an alternative to having students raise their hands to share.  At first, and for a while, I quite liked it.  It did feel equitable.  I agreed with the premise; if any child could be called upon to share at any time, then all students would be engaged and prepared to share.  Or, at least, they would understand this was the expectation.

I have consistently had this cup of pop sticks in my classroom every year.  I have one this year.  Of course, I do not use this method all the time, and each year, I use it less and less.  The students in my class are very often talking to each other in pairs or small groups.  Lately, though, I have been questioning if I should just ditch this cup of pop sticks for good. When I do pull it out, it has started to feel more like cold-calling than inviting equity into the classroom.  It is also becoming glaringly obvious to me that this is a very teacher-directed approach and it is not really preparing the students for any useful model of sharing their ideas.

One of the questions that have been guiding my practice and reflection lately is: What am I doing, as the teacher, that the students can be doing for themselves?  Under this lens, should I ever be sitting and randomly cold-calling students to share their ideas?  No.

The big goal is to help the students see that they will grow and learn best by being thoughtful, proactive, and strategic, so how can I help teach these young learners to engage in a whole-class discussion?

A few weeks ago, I began teaching the students some hand signals that we can use as signals when having whole-class discussions. I found these in a blog post I read on Edutopia last year.  I taught the students three of the simple signals, from this poster, “I agree”, “I disagree” and “I have something to add”.  So far, these three have served us really well.  I introduced these during our Morning Meetings.  Each day, I would throw out an engaging prompt, like, “Do animals have feelings?” and the students would begin to discuss using the signals to show they wanted to share.

One of the key moves here is that the students call on each other.  After sharing, a student can look at the hand signals being shown and call on a person who they are interested to hear from.  More than just being a signal to show their feeling or opinion, it is a signal to each other about how they want to engage in the discussion.  I love how often they are interested to hear from those who disagree.  I sit with the students, but I am there to listen.

After a few of these “practice sessions”, which were actually great discussions, we have begun to use the signals in a more natural way during whole class discussion times.  I find the students pull out the signals when looking at each other’s solutions to math problems. And, as it always is these days, I try to notice the times when I should be stepping back and letting the students have the floor.

Do you use hand signals in your class as a tool for developing quality discussion skills?  Is there still a time and a place for the Pop Stick Cup, or should it just go?  I’d love to hear.



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