Gewgaws and Tchotchkes

Teach for long enough and you usually pick up a few gimmicks from watching how others operate in a classroom. You always swipe the really good gimmicks and sometimes you even forget where you first saw them. Below are three I've started using in the past few years. Like I said, I didn't come up with these. I just stole them from someone and have since forgotten who it was.

Choosing the spokesperson
I use a lot of group work in class. Students will break into units of four or five to analyze a problem, share responses or complete a small group project. To facilitate the "reporting out" someone has to be appointed to make notes of the conversation, points of consensus, disagreement, evidence, etc. Seldom does anyone volunteer for this and there can ensue several minutes of "I'm not doing it!" "Well, I'm not either."

To eliminate this little drama, I tell the class that on the count of three everyone needs to point to someone else in their group. The person with the most fingers pointed at him or her is the spokesperson. The students generally get a kick out of this the first time. The second time around you can offer the original spokesperson an "immunity idol," which prevents the same person getting stuck with the job over and over. You can even do variations on this gimmick using birthdays, middle names arranged alphabetically, height, whatever. The thing is to get them started on the task as quickly as possible.

Time's up
Ending group work or an in-class writing can also be handled better. Sometimes a group will be going so well you hate to stop them, but you have to because you need to move on. It can be clumsy to simply walk up to the table, interrupt them and say, "Three minutes." They lose their focus. In-class writing can also be tricky. Students compose at varying speeds. If you set aside 15 minutes for the task, some will be done in five and others will take the rest of the period if you let them. A few years ago at a conference a guy had broken us into groups to work on something. Instead of interrupting our group's conversation once it got going, he told us beforehand that he would flick the lights off and on when there were three minutes left. It worked great. Everyone knew what it meant and we kept right on working. I've used this with in-class writing and have noted that it doesn't cause students to break their concentration or even, in most cases, lift their heads from their responses.

May I have your attention please?
This last one's a little weird, but the darned thing works with eerie regularity (it's especially handy with lively, talkative classes). When you need to get the students' attention and they are chattering away, you can walk to the center of the room, stand perfectly still and begin speaking at a volume slightly below your regular voice. The important thing is not to move at all. You must remain absolutely motionless and keep talking in that low voice. The effect of this is not unlike someone tapping a spoon against a wine glass to offer a toast at a wedding. Within seconds the room will grow almost completely quiet. If you move, however, the effect will be spoiled. I don't know why this works, but it does.

Gimmicks like these do not the great teacher make, but they do make the job easier and often more fun. If I had to choose between learning ten new teacher gimmicks like these or the latest pedagogical panacea... Well, what can I say?  I've always had a soft spot for cheesy gimmicks.


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