Getting Down Off Your “High Camel” : Where should a teacher stand/sit in class?

No.

No.

The following piece sits at the intersection of two loves: Torah and Education. I welcome those unfamiliar with the Jewish world of Bible Exegesis to enjoy an unusual spin on an ancient text.


A long time ago, I had a prescient image of my future self. I’d seen some movie where the teacher was sitting on the edge of his desk, facing the class, waxing poetic about whatever.

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Sometimes.

Years later, yes, I do that sometimes. But only sometimes.

Class begins, frequently, with story-telling on a plot. The topic is posted on the class online-calendar. Students write, and then we share. Sometimes, if I think the story is edutaining, I might sit on the edge of the desk and summon my story-telling skills. I might look a little like that teacher I’d imagined, a long time ago.

Most of the time, however, I walk around the room. Sometimes I stand on a chair. Sometimes I sit on the floor. Often, since I am using a wireless laptop projector, I break the fourth wall, plop down in the middle of the classroom, at an empty desk, and conduct class from wherever. From everywhere.


Sometimes.

No.

In this week’s Torah Portion, a critical encounter takes place. Isaac, forefather of the Jewish People, meets his wife, Rebecca, matriarch of the Jewish people. The text describes their encounter in oddly physical terms:

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, camels were coming. Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel (Ex 24:63).

Why does the text tell us about Rebekah’s dismount from the camel? Why include that detail at all?

Is body position, perhaps, a key ingredient in authentic encounter?


When I set up my class, I try to create a circle. A circle symbolizes equality and democracy. Like Rivka in the text above, in order to meet my students in true encounter, I need to get down off my high-camel, and meet my students where they are.

I sit on one side of the room one week, and the other side of the class the following week.

No.

No.

And when students work in groups, I try not to hover over them like a threatening presence – I sit down, at their level, and listen. I try not to interrupt. I enter the group quietly and respectfully, and I leave the same way.

When students sit on the ground, I sit on the ground.

And when I must take a place at the front of the room, there is no desk between me and my students. I push the desk to the side and leave open space.

Learning, like all encounters, take place best when there is space created for feeling safe and seen. Sometimes, my classroom is a seminar hall, but often, it is a salon in a comfy living room. Sometimes it’s a cafe. Sometimes it’s a design studio. Sometimes, it’s like a 70’s-style rap session, with everyone in a circle.

But always, I want my students to see me, not by looking up at me.

I want them to open their eyes, and see me, as often as possible, wherever they need me.

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“My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.” — Using Speakers’ Lists and Koosh Balls for Discussion Facilitation.

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My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


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 gave 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 Speakers’ 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. The next student didn’t get to speak until the previous student said “pass.”

While this method isn’t not good for debate, per se, it’s 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 speakers’ 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 havoc. 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 used to be made by , 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.

Q: You know what I’d pay you for a good idea?

A: Peanuts.


Defending the first to speak

defenderYou just saw a movie with a group of people – and as everyone is walking to the exit, someone asks: “What did you think?”

You have a few options.

A) Blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.

B) Hold back and get a sense of other people’s responses, formulate your ideas, and decide what your social goals are.

Isn’t it awesome to have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex? To be able to moderate your mouth, to make complex decisions about conversational cause-and-effect?

Teenagers: Brains are in not fully developed. Hormones are pretty darned developed.

By the time they realize what they want to say, they’ve already said the wrong thing.

Classroom Scenario

You offer a prompt or a question – perhaps on a controversial topic. The whole class is silent and still, except for one hand. You call on that brave soul.

The idea is half-baked. Maybe a little offensive.

A flock of hands now flies up. Students launch an offensive on the first speaker.

True, his idea was lacking. But after critique number two, nearly any student would become locked, defensive, and want only rescue himself from the onslaught.

What do you do?

After two or three critical comments directed towards a student, give him/her the courtesy of responding, clarifying what s/he meant, or defending his/her point.

Afterwards, it’s your job to highlight whatever grain of truth is in the idea. [Then, move on.]

Not only is it the fair thing to do, but also, it might allow him/her to invest less in protecting him/herself, and more energy in opening up to a new perspective.

He might even learn something.