When I first started teaching, my approach to circle time was to let kids speak out at their own pace. I'd ask for hands to be raised, we'd take turns talking, if someone was struggling with the whole hand raising business, I'd remind them that the way to get a turn was to raise your hand, then reward that child the second the hand flickered over her head. As for the kids who never spoke, I didn't want to put pressure on them. When they had something to say to all of us, I theorized, they would let us know. I took a great deal of pride in the fact that every child, even if some did so very eventually, at one point or another, contributed to our group discussions over the course of the year.
I think it was during my third year teaching that one boy's mom said to me, "Colin really wants to talk during circle time, but he doesn't understand raising his hand." I explained my theory to her. She nodded, "Still, I think he would like it if you just called on him." So I tried it, and sure enough, he had something to say.
It was one of those small epiphanies for me. While we still favor hand raising at circle time, it's the way you know you're going to get a turn to speak, it's not the only way to be heard. You see, as I've increasingly come to understand the importance and power of a democratic classroom, I've sought to expand what I learned through Colin to help children who are either unwilling or not yet able to assert themselves in our community meetings.
During our discussions these days, I'm constantly looking for the tale-tell signs of engagement beyond a hand raised high in the air. It might be a smile or a scowl. Maybe it's how her body is leaned forward or her jaw is set, as if fighting the urge to speak. Sometimes it will be the fact that his head is on a swivel, closely following the verbal ebb and flow. I might say something like, "Frank doesn't look like he likes that idea," or "Betsy looks excited about that." Sometimes it's all that's needed to unlock their words for us all to hear. I try to avoid the pressure of a direct question, something like "Cindy, do you have something to say?" but I've done it, sometimes to be answered with a bashful shrug, but just as often our community benefits from the gush of words the question has uncorked.
If we're really going to be a democracy we need to hear from everyone. Where I once took pride in entire school years during which everyone contributed during circle time, I now feel like we've somehow failed when we go a week without hearing every voice at least once.
And with that preface, I'll leave you with one of the short videos I made with Kids In The House. This is the third I've shared here on the blog. The others are here and here. If you want to watch all of the 18, you can always view them over at Kid's In The House: just search for "Tom Hobson." But before you head over there, make sure to pour another cup of coffee because with more than 8,000 videos from some 350 early childhood experts to choose from, you might be there awhile.