“I’m looking for people sitting quietly on their bottoms with their hands up." --Teacher Tom
Unlike in the Pre-3 class where Circle Time tends to be about singing song after song, in 3-5's we spend a lot more time in "discussion.” That's why the practice of raising hands takes on such importance, and why most of our activities at the beginning of the year involve ample opportunity to learn what happens when you do raise your hand and when you don’t. It makes for some squirrelly, somewhat chaotic Circle Times, but this is the only path I know to the other side.
Of course, most of our Pre-K kids have the drill down. Their year of experience taught them that if they have a little patience, they’ll get their turn to speak. When I start a sentence, “I want someone to raise their hand . . .” the sea of hands at this time of year is mostly comprised of the 4-year-olds, although some of the younger children are already figuring it out, largely by role modeling the behavior of the older kids. Alex, for instance, has it nailed: she holds her hand up forcefully, her eyes locked onto mine with an intensity that commands, “Call me!” And Isak had a real break through yesterday after a week of often loudly expressed frustration over not getting called on when he didn’t raise his hand. Most of them, however, are still figuring it out.
Learning to take turns in a large group is not easy. For one thing, you have to actually be aware that there are other people with whom you might need to share the spotlight. This is a big deal for children who are just emerging from the era of parallel play, into the vast, exciting world of living in a community. When the hands shoot up, I see them looking around in a kind of shock, as if seeing their friends for the first time. Others don’t even seem to notice the others around them, but rather start shouting out to me. Others are horsing around with the kid beside him, apparently oblivious to what’s going on. That’s just the way it is at the start of the year in a multi-aged preschool classroom where we’re trying to merge developmental levels spread out over nearly two full years.
The simple (grammatically incorrect) statement, “I’m looking for someone sitting quietly on their bottom with their hand up,” is actually a fairly complex 3-part instruction. Not only must they raise their hand, but they must be sitting on their bottom (not standing, lying down, or on their knees), and they must be quiet. It may sound like an exercise in pedagogy run amuck, but I genuinely want to teach this without using directional statements. I don’t want to boss them into it, but rather guide them into an understanding that raising hands and taking turns is the way it works in a community.
Figuring out the raised hand is the first step. When Anjali is sitting quietly on her bottom with her hand up, I’ll call on her. As much as I try to focus on Anjali, however, I keep the other children in the corner of my eye. I need to be alert because sometimes that first raised hand is only a brief wave and I want to reward it if I can by calling that child as soon as Anjali is finished. Sometimes I’ll just think I see a raised hand in a child’s eyes and ask, “Max, did you have something to say?” I know I risk putting pressure on a child, but more often than not he’ll answer, “Yes.” But before he gets anything else out, I’ll remind him, “I’ll call on you if you raise your hand.” The second that hand goes up, he gets called. It’s an incremental first lesson.
Others have no problem with the raised hand, but struggle with the quiet part: “My hand is raised! My hand is raised!” When this happens I’ll scan the group repeating, “I’m looking for someone sitting quietly. I’m looking for someone sitting quietly.” If that doesn’t work (sometimes the child will even shout, “I’m sitting quietly!”) I’ll look right at the child and say, “I’m looking for someone sitting quietly.” If that still doesn’t work, I’ll say, “Quietly means no voices.” If there’s even a brief pause, I’ll call on that child. It’s another incremental first lesson.
The process is similar for the child who is up on her knees or standing. “I’m looking for someone sitting on her bottom.” The second that bottom touches the rug, she gets called on.
These are exhausting Circle Times for me. It often feels like we’re on the edge of chaos, and there are times when I think I’ll have to pull a Sister Mary Elephant (“Class . . . class . . . SHUT UP!). Of course I won't, but the temptation is there every day.