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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.16.15A Recipe for Making Cold Call Feel Positive

Recipe background. Fresh vegetables with blank page of cookbookChatting with a group of teachers from Saluda County (SC) Public Schools yesterday,  I was asked a great question about Cold Call.  It reflected a common set of challenges and was such a useful question that I thought I’d share it and some steps that might be helpful for others who have the same challenge.

The teacher asked:

When I [Cold Call] I will often get a blank stare or seem to more importantly “embarrass the student” (especially my shy ones). How does this work when you know that some of  your students are shy and don’t like speaking out in front of the whole class?”

Again a common challenge.  I thought of four steps that would help ensure that Cold Calling was both positive and safe (psychologically) for all kids and therefore easy and natural for the teacher to use.  Here they are

1) Roll Out—Make sure to explain to your students what you intend to do and why.  Of course, they’ll notice it’s different from other classes or schools they’ve been in. Of course they want to know why you are doing it.  So tell them. Maybe something like: “Sometimes I will call on you even if your hand isn’t raised. I do that because I really want to know what you are thinking.  And sometimes it’s my job to know what you are thinking and how much you understand so I can make sure you learn as much as you can.  So be ready and know that when it happens it’s because I care about your thinking.”


You also might want to tell students how to react (“Just do your best. It’s ok if you feel a bit nervous. If you try and struggle, we’ll help you. Yes, you can ask me to repeat the question. You can start your answer with ‘I’m not sure but…” but I will always expect you to try.”)


And you might want to explain what’s expected when others are being Cold Called… “Obviously we all want to support each other in a positive way. Always. So if someone is taking their time to answer …no matter how they were called on… and you think you know, please don’t call out or make sounds that say “Oh my gosh how can you not know that.” That’s not being a good teammate so I should never see it. Smile at them instead to encourage them. And if you want, you can use this gesture to send magic if you think they need a little extra support and encouragement.” You can see an example of students sending magic in this video:


2) Positive Climate—Then, as you start to Cold Call, make sure your demeanor is positive and shows what you should feel : that you want kids to get it right. As they answer, you are smiling, nodding, looking like you are wondering earnestly about their thoughts. Show it’s a conversation, not a quiz show. And after they answer, say thank you.


3) Start with Success—The first few times you Cold Call, you might want to do a little extra to ensure that students feel successful and get over any anxieties. You want to normalize positivity and success. So your first Cold Call might be, “Can you read the question for me, Jonathan?”  That’s an easy one. The answer is right there. There’s no way to get it wrong. You might then progress to Cold Calling students to report and review answers they have completed at their seats.  For example, “What did you get for #7, Carla?”  Or even better, if you observe a little bit first, you can hunt instead of fish and say, “Carla, I loved your answer. Would you share it?” Now you are associating Cold Call with positivity and honor in your kids’ minds. You could even build a little suspense and positive anticipation about possible Cold Calls as you circulate and review student work: “Ooh. Nice thinking. Be ready. I might come to you.” If you are Cold Calling on kids who are English Language Learners you might tip them off in advance.  “Be ready I am going to ask you to talk to us about #7.”  Over time the supportive culture should make those pre-calls unnecessary.  Check out the student at about 0:54 in the video: ELL, Cold Called and doin’ great!


4) Build It Up–Over time, add complexity and challenge to your Cold Calls as students become increasingly comfortable and just maybe happy about Cold Calls, using it in more situations and with more challenging questions. As you do this, you can make increasing difficulty a positive part of the challenge. “Hmm. That’s a tough question, right? Let’s hear what Davonte’s thinking. Any thoughts, Davonte?” That makes it an honor for Davonte to be called on. The go-to guy in a tricky situation.  Part of the goal, by the way, is also to normalize follow-ons… Cold Calling students to respond to other students ideas and comments not just your own. So you might work in some, “Good thinking, Davonte. Can you develop that, Christina?” to build that culture.

Anyway, that’s one recipe for making sure the Cold Call works out positively in your classrooms. I’m sure there are readers who have great ideas or alternative to add so I hope they (you) will.

By the way thanks to Dr. Shawn Clark, Director of Curriculum & Instruction for Saluda County Schools and Dr. Abbey Duggins, Assistant Principal for Instruction at Saluda High School, for connecting me to the teachers they train.  A real treat!

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