By Gina Cuneo
As responsible educators and administrators, we’ve all heard about, noted in observations and perhaps have implemented some basic equity strategies in our classrooms. We are even somewhat fluent in throwing around current jargon like “the TESA strategies” and “Costa’s questioning and responding strategies.”
We have been told, and some of us are truly aware, that low-achieving students are less likely to be called on by the teacher than are high achievers. We also hear that high achievers get more than their share of a teacher’s time. But have we ever really observed, recorded and disaggregated data about the effects of the use of equity strategies — and, more specifically, the equitable distribution of questions on student participation and student learning?
As a relatively new assistant principal faced with the task of observing and evaluating half of the staff, I decided that charting the distribution of questions that teachers asked students was relatively easy, gave teachers valuable information and was judgment neutral. For each observation, I asked the teacher for a seating chart upon which I could write in order to give them feedback on the number of students to whom they were asking questions.
The results for teachers new to the profession were as I expected. They tended to call on the same students often. They favored the students who raised their hands, and they had a group of “go-to” students they fell back on when they were unsure whether anyone could answer their questions.
After each observation, I would share the information with the teachers, suggest some concrete strategies to begin implementation of equity strategies and then make sure to follow up on teacher use of those strategies. I did not, however, understand the impact and power of equity strategies until my second year as an assistant principal.
I happened to schedule two observations back-to-back; the first in a seventh grade history class, the second in a seventh grade science class. In the history class with a 10th-year teacher, as was my custom, I had my seating chart ready and I began charting the distribution of questions. The class that day was discussion-based, and there were many questions being asked of students.
It became immediately clear that William, a GATE student who is extremely bright and verbal, was having a nearly one-on-one discussion with the teacher. He bantered, argued and expressed his vehement opinions with the teacher and had an absolutely fabulous period. He was asked 15 questions, while there were 24 other students who were asked none at all.
Several other students were called on to read, and three other students had more than two questions asked of them. I duly noted the distribution of questions and when the period was over, I packed up my stuff and moved to my next observation.
While I was organizing my papers, the first-year science teacher began her class. She started with a review of last night’s homework and began asking questions. I had not yet looked up when the first question was asked, and to my surprise, the boy called on to respond was none other than William! I quickly looked over the seating chart and realized that there were about 17 of the same students from the class I had just observed. And to my utter amazement, Mr. William Loquacious was at it again.
I watched one of the students, Bob, who was not asked a single question in the class before sit at his desk, twirl his pencil and tune out. I recalled that he had done precisely the same thing in his history class and I began feeling helpless as I quickly calculated how many times Bob was going to interact with a teacher that day as opposed to William.
To my utter relief, the science teacher then announced that she was going to use her name cards to call on students. I could not believe how the tenor and level of positive tension in that classroom almost immediately began to change. Students sat up, organized their papers and listened intently as the teacher asked her questions, thumbed through the cards and then announced who would answer the question.
With few exceptions, students who were called upon were ready with answers. Some more complete and articulate than others; but a large cross-section of the class (27 of the 34 students) were called upon to answer. Bob was one of them, and he was into it.
The level of active participation was way up. In fact, the only student who was the least bit negative was William, who kept raising his hand. Although the teacher said she was using the cards to decide who to call on, he clearly felt that it was unfair. That one day completely changed my expectation of teacher use of equity strategies in the classroom. It is no longer a suggestion, it is a requirement, and a new teacher who does not use a system to assure the equitable distribution of questions (at the very least) is not welcome back.
It sounds harsh, but I have only to think of William and Bob and the inequity in the quality of their education if each and every teacher does not thoughtfully and deliberately use a system that will assure, at the very least, that every child will have equal access to their questions, their time and their energy.
Gina Cuneo is assistant principal of South Lake Middle School in Irvine.