It all started with a peanut.
The teacher was offering salty, shelled peanuts to students who answered questions correctly. It was my turn and she asked me the question, something about verbs. Or adverbs. I blurted out the answer, and hands shot up; I watched in horror as the teacher called on another student to answer and give him the peanut. My peanut.
The worst part was that the second I said the wrong answer, I realized my error… but I could do nothing about it. My peanut was gone.
Solution 1: The Speaker’s List
Years later, as an adult, I joined a housing cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin. The co-op system had meetings to decide everything: whether to invite an applicant to live in the house, how to invest our $10,000 budget windfall, whether to stop buying cheese.
Those meetings might have been nightmares (and indeed, sometimes they were), but one thing kept meetings orderly: when it was your turn to speak, one thing made sure your peanut was not given to someone else.
The speaker’s list.
If you wanted to speak, your name went on a list. When it was your turn, it was your turn. And you were not done speaking when someone else said you were done, you were done when you said, “pass.”
Was this abused? Sometimes. Rarely.
Mostly, it made people feel heard and seen and in control of their own words.
As a teacher, I quickly adopted this technique. I would ask a question, and instead of hands popping up and competing for my attention, I would simply assign numbers. No more than 7. And the next student didn’t get to speak until the previous student said “pass.”
This was not a good method for debate, but very good for exploring ideas, which is most of what my class is about.
Solution 2: The Koosh Ball
Still, something was not complete. I was still serving as the speaker’s list keeper and calling on the next speaker, and sometimes, the list felt a little heavy handed. Furthermore, sometimes, I would ask a question and find that getting even one or two speakers was a challenge.
In a groovy book on leading “Rap Sessions,” written by somebody in the 70s with incredible, spherical hair, I encountered the idea of a talking stick. The person with the stick speaks. Everyone else listens.
But what if the next person to speak is 15 feet away? Could a talking stick be easy to catch, easy to throw, and soft, in case someone got hit in the eye? The answer is yes. If the stick is a Koosh Ball.
A tennis ball will bounce and roll, creating havok. A hackysack is easy to throw but hard to catch. A bowling ball is too heavy. The perfect catchable, tossable, safe talking stick is a Koosh Ball.
They are no longer in production, but you can buy them here for a few dollars each. I have one in my backpack at all times. And I only go through one or two a year.
Here are some additional benefits to using speakers’ lists and Koosh Balls:
1. The koosh serves as a visual reminder of who is speaking. This is one piece in the classroom-management-without-raising-your-voice puzzle.
2. The Koosh gives you a way of correcting out of turn speakers in a concrete, non-judgmental way: “Make sure you’re only speaking when you have the Koosh” is much more clear than, “Stop talking out of turn.”
3. Some students like to fidget with the Koosh while they speak, and while I also teach articulate speaking in appropriate contexts, the kind of dreamy rhapsodizing that comes with having something to fiddle with while speaking can actually allow for freer, more creative expression.
4. While you can create a hybrid speaker’s list / koosh conversation, where the next person on the list gets the koosh, the koosh can also allow the currect speaker to choose who speaks next.
5. Facilitation through speakers’ list and/or Koosh Balls allows you to step out of actively facilitating the discussion, allowing you to listen more deeply to the individual students and the class “gestaldt” – after six or seven students speak, then, offer your observations and conclusions. I call this “curation,” you can read more about “Curation As Discussion” here.
6. Using a speakers’ list and Koosh Ball helps you focus on the quality of your questions. Fewer, clearer, open-ended questions are far more effective than many, guided, leading questions. When you get accustomed to asking questions that seven students can answer seven different ways, you’re developing your skills as a master teacher.
Conclusion: These two techniques are part of creating a class atmosphere that is lively without being frenetic, and where students feel seen and heard. Please share your tips and ideas for discussion facilitation below.
You know what I’d pay you for a good idea?