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09.16.19Call and Response and other forms of “Teacher Catnip”

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.

Catnip: Oooh, that’s nice.

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.

6 Responses to “Call and Response and other forms of “Teacher Catnip””

  1. Mike G
    September 16, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    So what did you learn about SA in the book?

    I saw some of Eva’s unrelenting results-oriented urgency, combined with a straight line no-nonsense communication style.

    But my risk is that’s the hammer I always see. Linda Brown. Kim Steadman. Bill Belichick.

    • Doug Lemov
      September 16, 2019 at 5:15 pm

      I get Brownie and Kim Steadman but what’s Belichick even done? 🙂 Too early still to get thoughts into a single post. I like to take my time and think about it. 🙂

  2. Bill G
    September 17, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    I bet you’ve seen a similar thing in soccer. A child player attended a nice instructional camp last week. She learned and practiced some dangles. Blocked repetition of step-overs, for example. This week, she has a game and enthusiastically busts out her step-overs with nearly every touch, regardless of field position, regardless of defensive pressure, etc. Mom says, “Oh-oh.”

    But let’s not go with the narrative on page 79 of Mr. Pondisco’s book and Ms. Moskowitz’s presumption uncritically. I see elite pro athletes —it’s hockey players, for me — taking control of a defender by mentally overloading the defender with a flurry of confounding and otherwise meaningless dribbles, fakes, or dekes as the play away from the puck develops so that a more productive play can be made.

    Ms. Moskowitz’s teacher gets a visit from Ms. Moskowitz and Robert Pondiscio? Yikes! She may have just been keeping the lid on her class and making things appear particularly orderly and nice for the guests.

    If not why not? Is so because why?

    • Doug Lemov
      September 17, 2019 at 3:32 pm

      Great points all around. I find this a challenge personally. I walk into a classroom and teachers “over TLAC” because, welll, because the author is standing there and that’s what they think i’ll want to see. But i think: i liked it better when you were you and you didn’t over do it. i wonder if it’s a natural part of the learning process to over use what you’ve just learned (stepovers) or if it’s a sign of imperfect teaching. Answer is probably some of both and depends on when in the teaching cycle the over-use happens. Anyway, thanks for the insightful comments.

  3. Charlie F
    September 17, 2019 at 11:27 pm

    We definitely see the call and response catnip and it’s always made me uncomfortable. I haven’t read “How the Other Half…” yet, but think that Eva’s quote puts my gut reaction into words. There’s definitely something about the immediate gratification a teacher gets from “call and response” that makes it particularly catnippy. I wonder if we need to look for ways to turn the other stuff into habits…create a positive feedback loop for teachers when they do heavy intellectual work like asking a really great question, using wait time, or giving really meaningful feedback. If anyone knows how to do this, I’m all ears!

    I’m curious if you’ve had a chance to read the George Packer Atlantic article. There’s a lot in there, but the part about standardized testing reminded me of a blog post you wrote a while ago about opting-out. We’ve shared that blog post with our staff before testing (and with some families) to enthusiastic response.

    • Doug Lemov
      September 18, 2019 at 10:55 am

      Thanks, Charlie. I haven’t read that article but will be sure to check it out. I wonder if with catnippy things that are a little bit reflexive, consciousness can be curative… just saying: C and R is great but make sure you have a purpose and ideally the thing they are repeating should be worth remembering. ie part of Eva’s point is that repeating ‘balls’ has no value. what do we need to find: “the least common denominator!” does…. but hopefully other folks will have better ideas. thanks for the comment and for sharing the blog post. proud to be on the reading list at your school.

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