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Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.18.20How Memphis Rise Helps Teachers Build Vibrant Online Culture

Simple little things of value

Means of Participation is our phrase for a set of consistent procedures that describe clearly to students HOW they should participate in class at any given moment.

When the Means of Participation is ambiguous–i.e. left unclear by the teacher–the results are mostly one of the following:

  • Crickets: No one will violate the unspoken code of silence so there’s a long awkward silence
  • That Kid: The one highly verbal kid who always answers will answer yet again to save everyone the awkwardness or because he or she has a habit of calling out.

When you don’t make it clear how to participate–when you haven’t thought through the ideal way for students to participate–you get students’ best guess about how to participate, or the lowest risk option. And sometimes very little participation at all.

What you don’t get is ‘voice equity’–the opportunity for everyone to be heard. If you get the same kid voicing his answers over and over right away, kids who are slower and possibly more thoughtful never get to speak.

What you also don’t get is a culture that is designed to optimally support learning and intellectual risk-taking, that makes everyone feel lovingly accountable.

When it’s clear how to participate, when those means of participation vary, when they draw everyone in to participation, and when the Turn and Talks and Cold Call become familiar and known routines, they “can help reinforce academic mindsets such as “I belong” and “I can do this,” as Zaretta Hammond writes in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.

This is true in Bricks and Mortar classrooms. It is true times 100 in online classrooms where the Norm of Passivity is STRONG. Even adults will turn off the cameras and fade into the isolating reaches of the internet if allowed to. Vibrant classroom culture has to be built online. If we do it we get community. If we don’t we get isolation.

The first step to vibrant online culture, then, is defining the Means of Participation you will use and sharing details on execution. What are the options and how can teachers do them well?

That’s why this excellent document from Memphis Rise Academy in Memphis, TN is so valuable. The school–working with my partner and colleague Darryl Williams–has defined the Means of Participation its teachers can use, named them, outlined details of how to do them well. They’ve even included model phrases teachers can employ in using them:

But they’ve gone a step further too. The icons on the left get used by teachers in their materials–lesson plans and slide decks if they use them–to remind themselves of which method they’ve planned to use when.

We–Team TLAC–do this in our own workshops. These little icons for example remind me that on this slide I’m asking participants to chat and then I’m Cold Calling someone whose ideas I appreciated from the chat.

With this visible reminder I have more working memory free to really listen to people.

If I keep at it I hope my sessions will be as good as some of the amazing classes I’ve seen at Memphis Rise.


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