If you teach elementary, you probably know (and use) popsicle sticks to call on students to answer questions. I’m not sure if this is something used in secondary, but for those of you that aren’t elementary or don’t know about this tool, I’ll do a quick explanation of how they are typically used.
Students names (or classroom #) are written on popsicle sticks (I keep extra sticks on hand for new students or visitors). The teacher draws a stick and that student is expected to answer whatever question the teacher has asked. It’s supposed to be a way to make sure teachers aren’t calling on the same students over and over again and to make sure all students are paying attention and participating.
Pretty standard, seemingly mundane stuff in the education world. It was suggested to me by a principal to use this tool my first year of teaching. I did. And as I’ve continued to use them, like anything else, I recognized drawbacks and problems to the popsicle sticks.
Mainly, for a shy, introverted student, it’s stress-inducing. I started thinking back to when I was in school and how much I hated being called on when I didn’t raise my hand. I was very shy and quiet (still am for the most part), and really, really, really just wanted to be a wallflower (still do for the most part) and not have any attention paid to me. When I was called to answer a question I wasn’t 110% sure of the answer, it was terrifying to me.
So why was I putting my students through this if I hated it myself as a student?
On the flip side of this internal debate (I love to do this to myself), without having to give constant assignments and trusting the answers were truly their own, how was I going to make sure my students understood the content being discussed at the moment?
Here are two ways I changed up how I use popsicle sticks.
Pass or Play
One day, as a spur of the moment thing, I decided to use the sticks a bit differently. I told my students we were going to play Pass or Play. I would ask them a question about the content/subject matter we were working on at the time, and draw a stick. If they didn’t know the answer, they could pass, I would put their stick back in the jar to be drawn again randomly later on. On the second draw, they would have to answer whatever question was being asked, which may or may not be the same question, depending on whether I drew their stick twice in a row or not. If they knew the answer, they could give it, or play.
They were so excited to be playing a game! Many were eager to see if their stick was drawn and if they would be ready for the question. If it was a question they were allowed to use a book or their notes, some would be furiously looking through whatever resource they could use as I shook the jar of sticks and started to draw, wanting to be ready to give their answer (I always give the question first and a bit of time for them to think about or find the answer before I draw a stick, again to alleviate some of that anxiety). Some would already know the answer, and would be raising their hand (even though there’s no need, just out of habit). A few were still sitting and/or staring into space (there almost always will be one or two), but for the most part, everyone was engaged and excited about the sticks.
Why were they excited?
They had a choice.
It was up to them if they were going to answer the question or not. If they knew the answer, they could give it, and their stick would no longer be in play, and I moved onto the next question and next stick. For some, that was a relief. For others, they would beg me to put their stick back in so they could keep playing (I don’t put them back in until all sticks have been used). If they weren’t ready with an answer, they could pass and I would draw the next stick. I always remind them to look for or try to think of or find an answer to give in case I immediately draw their stick again. It’s always quite humorous when I draw their stick back to back. The groans and laughter of getting ‘caught by the stick’ is amusing. I tell them the sticks REALLY want to know what they are thinking, and they smile and give an answer (on those rare occasions I’ve got a really stubborn, shy student that will try to wait things out and not give an answer, I just tell them their stick will go back in and keep getting pulled for all eternity, or just try an answer, right or wrong, so we can all learn from it…it generally works and gets them to answer…eventually). It’s lighthearted and fun. If they got it wrong, it was okay, I still took their stick out of play. They had tried to answer, and I knew they may be having trouble with that concept or perhaps just didn’t understand the question.
Either way, it gave me something to go on, rather than waiting on an assignment later on down the road. It was quick information on what they were thinking, right then and there. When all the students have been called on to give an answer to a question, the sticks go right back in the jar and we start all over, or we move on to another activity/lesson.
Last year, I found myself with extra sets of sticks, and again, on the spur of the moment (I do this quite a bit), I found a new way to use them.
Bear with me just a moment as I set this up.
The way I have the classroom set up is I have what I call my ‘workstation’, where my computer and document camera are at and other things I need when in full teaching mode. Students have fairly free access to this area. I keep my ‘regular’ sticks there to use on a daily basis.
My ‘office’ is on the opposite side of the classroom where my typical teacher desk, manuals, piles of paperwork, etc. are located. I tell my students a Kraken lives in my office desk and under no uncertain terms are they allowed in my office, or the Kraken will get them. This was a pretty easy sell with my third graders. It has also been a surprisingly easy sell with my fifth graders this year (or perhaps they just enjoy humoring me). This is where I keep my ‘tricky sticks’. This gives me sticks to use no matter where I am in the classroom (I like to be on the move quite a bit).
The tricky sticks are just two sets of sticks for each student. If I draw their first stick, they can choose the normal pass or play option as described above. The second stick is the ‘tricky stick’. They don’t have an option with this one. Once the second stick is drawn, they have to answer whatever the question is.
This usually has someone issuing this sound effect…
They get excited (with a few groans in the studio audience) when they see me going over to the tricky sticks. It’s really a sign from the stick gods that a student must have special knowledge to share on those rare occasions I draw their stick, they pass, I draw it immediately again, they answer, and I draw the dreaded tricky stick on the third straight pull (it’s rare, but does happen). This gets the entire class all excited and animated, as you can imagine.
The best part about all this?
They are engaged and still have a choice (at least on the first pull of the stick).
Just these simple tweaks on a simple classroom management tool has been great for my students and for me as well. There’s less stress on them at the randomness of it all. I feel less guilty for putting that stress on them in the first place. It’s something to try, at the very least to mix things up.