Using Nonverbal Signals to Help the Conversation Flow

Eric Charlesworth

by Eric Charlesworth

For Middle Level

In my class, I love to discuss strategies that students use to solve problems or make connections between mathematical concepts. However, a whole-class conversation among 20+ students, however focused the crew is on a given day, is full of potential issues.

The most common problems can be students tuning out because they either feel that they already get it or don't get it. So I am always looking for ways to keep folks alert and paying attention.

There are a few ways I combat potential zone-outs. We usually sit in a circle so we can see and hear each other, and we use a variety of conversation styles, including but not limited to partner shares, relays, stick-pulling, cold calls, and the talking ball. While students control much of the conversation, I inject my own energy whenever I feel it can improve the flow.

When students are not speaking, they can stay involved by using their fingers to make a nonverbal connection signal when they agree with an important point the speaker is making. This is really helpful when someone is giving an answer or explaining a strategy—I can monitor who else had similar results. It also builds in positive feedback for the person who is sharing.

But I have struggled for a long time with how students should respond when a student makes an error.

The kids know they must not be rude or interrupt, yet I do not want mistakes to go unaddressed, for fear of spreading misunderstanding. To further complicate matters, I feel it takes away from the power of the group if I am always the one to stop them and say, "Hold on a second." I have brought this conundrum up to classes in the past without finding an answer. But this year I asked again, and I finally got a solution that appears to be working!

Georgia Time Out_web+blog

"How about a timeout signal?" said Jose.

"A timeout?" I asked.

"Yeah, just signal a timeout like in sports."

Well, I thought, why not try it?

So we added the nonverbal timeout signal as a way for students to respectfully show that they disagree.

At first it didn't work. The sixth-graders were feverishly calling timeout like there were three seconds left in the championship game! It turned out to be distracting and, yes, rude.

But after much modeling and practice, almost all students now have perfected a motionless timeout signal. And now if they have an important disagreement, it is essential to hear it out before we move on to a different problem.

If a student makes a mistake, instead of having to either jump on it myself or let it go, I just scan the room to see who is calling a T.O. The class holds more power, and the math conversation continues from there.

Try the timeout signal and let us know what you think. 

Eric Charlesworth is a sixth-grade mathematics teacher and advisor at Paul Cuffee Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island. Recently, he obtained principal certification. He has practiced the Developmental Designs approach in middle school for eight years.

Posted December 2013

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