I spent much of the weekend re-reading Robert Pondiscio’s fantastic book. How the Other Half Learns, his tale of a year inside the eminently successful Success Academy charter network.
Yes, I have thoughts on the larger lessons and implications of the book. At some point I may share them though I’m still thinking it through. For now I wanted to share an observation that I found useful to teachers*.
On page 79, Pondiscio follows Success CEO Eva Moskowitz on a walk-through of one of her schools. They observe a classroom that infuriates her because of its overuse of non-substantive Call and Response.
Here’s the scene as Pondiscio paints it:
The children…are calculating the number of volleyballs in a group where the total number of balls is known, as well as the number of balls that are not volleyballs. The teacher calls on a child named Dmitri to discuss his work.
“The total is thirty-two,” he concludes.
“The total number of what?” she pushes.
“Um … of … the …”
“The total number of…?” she loudly signals to the class to answer.
“Balls!” some but not all students call out.
“The total number OF!”
“BALLS!” This time the whole class answers in unison, each child seeming determined to yell louder than the next.”
She goes back to the child who hesitated. “So, these thirty-two, Dmitri, are the total number of…”
The whole class again answers for Dmitri. “Balls!” they yell. It’s deafening.
Moskowitz has seen enough and walks out. “You have an endemic problem with stupid shouting and call-and-response. Get them to a more intellectual place,” she tells [the principal] back in the hallway… “They know what a ball is. They’ve known what a ball is since they were toddlers.” Moskowitz is visibly irritated.
What do I think of Moskowitz’ response- especially given that I wrote about Call and Response as a useful technique in Teach Like a Champion?
I completely agree with her.
With any ‘technique’ there is the risk of overuse or misapplication. You get a hammer and suddenly everything looks like a nail. Multiply that risk times ten for Call and Response because it’s so catnip-y for teachers. You do it and it feels good to get such a vibrant and upbeat response. The temptation is to use it again. Suddenly it’s a bit of a compulsion- over-used with limited intentionality. When in doubt–when there’s a bit of downtime, when you need a moment to think and want to keep the kids attentive–use Call and Response!
I see the overuse of Call and Response and other techniques that ask for instant responses from students frequently. I understand why it happens but it’s important to remember that a useful thing in moderation can become a monster with overuse. I call this Catnip. You get a little burst of classroom adrenaline so you want to do it again and again. It can easily devolve into silliness.
Can teacher catnip take other forms? Yes. I observed a classroom recently where I had a Moskowitz-like response to the over-use of SLANT. The kids were fine. They were ready to learn. They didn’t need reminders to SLANT every ten seconds; they were already SLANTING. They needed the reward for being attentive: real and engaging intellectual work. Right then!
So it’s important to ask the question Moskowitz asks here for Call-and-Response: For what purpose am I using it? What am I having students repeat and why? And to ask more broadly about any classroom tool: What’s my purpose? Am I overusing it? Has it become catnip to me?
And say what you will about Success and about Moscowitz, but a CEO who’s that attentive to the details of instruction and who’s demanding about purposeful instruction has to be one of the reasons for the network’s success.
*For what it’s worth I challenged myself to read the book with the goal of learning as much as I could rather than to judge Success Academies, one way or the other. This is something I wrote about a few years ago when I visited London’s Michaela School. Generally people spend too much time thinking the world needs them to judge other people’s work and not enough time getting on with doing their own better.