As Goes the Signal, So Goes the Class

Kristen Konop

By Kristen Konop

For Middle Level

As long as I’ve worked with kids, older and younger,
I have used signals to get their attention:
as a lifeguard I used a whistle;
as a camp counselor I used musical call and response, “Hey/Ho.”

As a pre-school teacher, I used a Spanish phrase with motion, and while team teaching with an artist in residence, I used a Ghanaian call and response, “Ago/Ame.”

When I taught middle school, signals were less varied. The raised-hand signal (“Show me five” or asking for high five) was the standard way to get students’ attention, and my colleagues and I used this signal almost exclusively. I modeled it, had students practice it, then got their endorsement. I would tell them, “The signal is not just for me. When you lead a class activity and need to get everyone’s attention, you will use it, too.” For the most part, I had success with the raised-hand signal, but there were always a few students for whom it wasn’t effective: students who needed reminders, redirection, to take a break, or, unbeknownst to me, needed a different signal.

One day, on the bus to take my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders skiing, the students were excited and a bit nervous. Most of them—and some of the teachers—had never been downhill skiing before. The energy on the bus was high: loud voices, seat-switching, yelling—you get the picture. We had a 40-minute ride, so this could not continue! Mr. Mike, our educational assistant, seemed to be thinking the same thing: “This needs to stop.”

In the circumstances, raising my hand and saying “Show me five” seemed futile. He looked at me, smiled, and yelled, “Hey, Ms. KK, do some of those songs you sing with them.” He meant songs and games from our morning meeting activities: Jig-a-low, Introduce Yourself, and Ooo-kaleh-la. I wasn’t sure this would work, but I am a throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of gal, so I went for it.

“My name is KK.”

Some eyes turned to me and I heard a soft, “yeah.”

“I like to play tennis.”

More eyes and a little louder, “yeah.”

“With my hands up high and my feet down low, this is how I jig-a-low!”

Even louder, “With her hands up high and her feet down low, this is how she jig-a-lows!”

Then a student exclaimed, “My turn!” Several others followed. As soon as a song ran its course, we started another one. This continued all the way to our destination. There, I used a call-and-response attention signal, and it worked!

Although the skiing lessons were lost on me, the lesson about the use of different signals was not. I continued to introduce new ways of getting students’ attention. I thought back to my lifeguard days, camp days, and, yes, even pre-school teaching days to use varied and more active signals to get students’ attention. No matter which signal I planned to use, I modeled, practiced with them, and got their endorsement for it.

Using multiple signals in the class felt right. Scott Tyink, a Developmental Designs colleague, says, “As goes the signal, so goes the class.” To a surprising extent, if my signal is tight, the class goes well. But how would I know which signal would be effective with my classes?

Last year I attended a staff development day with Dr. Sharroky Hollie, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning.

He spoke about increasing student engagement through the use of culturally responsive activities. He specifically spoke of diversifying signals to suit a range of learning styles and cultural experiences.

I realized that by not interpreting the Developmental Designs practice of signaling for attention as a one-signal-fits-all strategy, I had taken a step toward more effectiveness with all students.

“Show me five” works for many students a lot of the time, but not for everyone, and not all the time. Why not cultivate a selection of signals with students? Why not draw from an ever-increasing store of signals? Modeling and practicing a new signal is far less time-consuming than not having students’ attention, or dealing with the engagement issues that can result from not being in responsive relationship with them.

Dr. Hollie’s words and research support what Mr. Mike had identified on that bus: a responsive signal fosters a learning environment which is responsive to all. As Scott says, “As goes the signal, so goes the class.”

Kristen Konop has been a Developmental Designs facilitator for many years. Currently, she teaches sixth grade teacher at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville, MN.

Posted May 2014

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