What Classroom Signals Do You Send?

February 20, 2017 Posted by Rhonda Meyer Vivian, Ph.D.

One day, while driving to work, I found myself behind someone who, instead of using a turn signal to indicate the intention of taking the next exit, simply braked and took the exit. I began to think about the similarities of this behavior to how we sometimes offer instruction in the classroom. Do you always signal your intent to turn to a new topic or do you rely on your students--your passengers, if you will--to simply ride along with you?

Who is the Driver in Your Classroom?

As I considered this concept, I realized that I think of the teacher as the primary driver in the classroom. One of the goals of using Foldables and Notebook Foldables interactive graphic organizers is to help students learn to drive their own learning. We aim for a gradual release of responsibility, where ultimately, students generate their own Foldables as they see the need. No single strategy or instructional or learning tool works for every student, so it is important that students use the ones that work for them when they can. When introducing a new graphic organizer or new unit of study, much of the content is teacher-directed: the teacher provides the rationale for the Notebook Foldable and directs students in its use. For example, if I am priming my students for a new unit by introducing key vocabulary terms, I might select a multi-tab Foldable and instruct students on the terms or visual representations to put on the tabs.

Contrast this with some student-directed learning that might take place later in the unit; given an opportunity, students might identify a personal connection with the content and select a Foldable or Notebook Foldable appropriate to share that connection.

Teachers regularly comment about the frustrations of being asked, "Will this be on the test?" or similar questions by students, and it occurs to me that at least sometimes those questions occur because we haven't properly signaled where we are going with the content of the lesson. We do need to provide context--often a LOT of context--for the material presented. Am I presenting this mini-lesson to provide background information to make sure everyone is on the same page? Is it crucial and foundational content for what we'll work with the rest of the year and if we don't understand it, we'll never be able to move on?? Is this a content connection to a current event that is presented because of the current event but only indirectly related to the unit of study? The possibilities are almost endless and the categories regularly overlap. We need to remember to provide the context for the learning we want to occur.

Heads-up on the Header 

Many teachers have developed the good habit of connecting the day's lessons with the content standards, and if you are among those teachers, that's great! If not, consider doing so not simply as a rote exercise but as an opportunity to signal to your students a sense of the big picture, where we are on the map of our journey for the unit, grading period, semester, or year.

When using interactive notebooks, enter the standard or objective for the lesson on the header of the page, or if you use Notebook Foldables, consider using the anchor tab for the standard or objective. Use those spots to give your students a heads-up about the content connections you expect them to make. Remember, we put the main idea(s) on the front of the tab--the standard or learning objective is certainly part of the main idea for our lesson. Supporting information, details, diagrams, sketches, problem-solving, student connections and/or notes go underneath the tabs. Learners should be able to use the Notebook Foldable as a visual organization tool of the big and important ideas presented. 

Make Sure Your Signals Work

One final note: periodically check to make sure your signals work. When a turn signal stops working properly in my car, I notice that it turns on and off much more rapidly--that's the feedback to the driver that something isn't working as it should. The last time that happened to me, the turn signal showed up for those following me, but not for oncoming traffic, so my signal was only effective for those following me. I know that not everyone in the classroom is always following me, and since I don't have the same automatic feedback loop for my classroom signals, it is important to follow through and check for understanding. True communication only occurs when the signal we send is the one received.

What signals do you use in the classroom? When do you use them? How do you know they're working?

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