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Trying to Figure Out Call & Response

July 11, 2018

Oh Hi There. Long time no see. It’s been a while since I’ve written on this blog because I don’t really teach math anymore. I’ve been writing about Computer Science over on this other blog I started, Codey McCoderson (pretty original name, right?).

But – I wrote a post there that kind of has a request for ideas or thoughts focused around a teaching strategy that could show up in a math classroom too: Call and Response. In an effort to get more voices as part of that conversation (since, really, this site still gets way more traffic than the other one), I’m posting the same thing here as well. Maybe this post will resonate with you and you’ve got some ideas to help me figure out Call and Response. And if not, that’s fine too. But either way, here’s the blog post, which is cross-posted at Codey McCoderson as well.

I’m in the middle of a whirlwind of summer professional development and I’m in the middle of processing all of my thoughts in a separate blog post that I’ll hopefully share soon. But in the mean time, there’s one strategy I’ve seen a few times this summer that I still have trouble wrapping my head around and am hoping some folks might be able to help me out: Call And Response.

I’ve become a lot more focused on teaching practices that have an inclusive focus to them – that develop a student’s sense of belonging, create safe spaces, and make it so everyone has an entry point to my classroom (all of which are super important if I’m authentic in my belief that CS is for all, not just for some). With that lens, I’ve seen Call and Response pop up several times this summer in sessions on culturally responsive teaching, most recently at a CSTA session run by Microsoft TEALS (which was really awesome – props to them for a really quality session and for making this one of their four ‘pillars’ of PD they offer). Throughout these sessions, I’ve convinced myself that I want to try incorporating Call and Response in my classroom as a way to bring out more student voices in my classroom and as way to increase a students sense of belonging while they’re in my room.

But I really really struggle imagining how this will look in my classroom, partially because I’ve never been in a classroom where I’ve seen this done well and because I’m having hard time settling on the purpose of this strategy. I don’t want my call and response to just be a silly way to get students attention that feels childish and silly and, frankly, an insult to the maturity of the students in my room. All of these are what I feel like I find when I search for call and response ideas and I get results that look like this or this. I don’t want those.

(Edit 7/13: To be fair, that first link has a few strategies for using Call and Response that are more in sync with that I think I’m looking for… even if the actual list itself doesn’t seem to follow them. Maybe this actually helps confirm a suspicion I’m developing: generalized call-and-response cues are easier to come up with but tend to be inauthentic or mismatched with maturity level, but creating an authentic, context-specific call-and-response can be super difficult. Anyway, back to this post)

I also struggle with the more academic version of call and response as a strategy to solicit student participation and help with memorization (as seen in these two blog posts here and here), which is also consistent with the version of call and response I was familiar with when Teach like a Champion was all the rage. I buy into the connections with how this helps tap into cultures of oral tradition and how it can activate parts of the brain to help with learning, but… I dunno, this strategy really isn’t authentic to how I’d prefer to have students collaborate and process information. It’s so teacher-focused and, as the articles seem to acknowledge, it only seems functional on questions and prompts that are at a low Blooms / Depths of Knowledge level. I can see myself doing this periodically to reinforce academic language, but that’s not why I’m interested in this strategy. I’m looking at call and response from a lens of inclusivity, classroom culture, and increasing a sense of belonging – none of which really seem to get hit by using this strategy this way.

The idealized version of Call and Response that I have in my head actually comes from an episode of the NPR show Code Switch where they spend a year at an all boys, all African-American high school in Washington, D.C. (you can listen to the episodes here – I like them a lot). You can hear the call and response in the episode – whenever an administrator says “We Are”, the students respond with “All In”. To me, it seems super powerful as a way to reinforce the goals of the school, the community they’ve created, and to remind students of their own buy-in to making that culture work. You can hear teachers and administrators use these cues to grab students attention, but also to reinforce themselves after a particularly difficult or meaningful event. They do not seem to be using it to reinforce academic content.

This version of call and response is also more in line with how AVID uses call-and-response, as energizers or positive reinforcement after students share things in a group. This is another way I could imagine using this strategy – as a norm’d and practiced positive shared response after student presentations or a student takes a risk in class. But, even though I think I agree in principle with how AVID uses these, frankly… every AVID call-and-response I’ve seen has been too silly or off-topic or childish for my sensibilities.

So – I’m stuck. Or actually, after writing this post, I feel a little more unstuck as I think I’ve realized my idealized version of call and response is somewhere in the middle of all of the more mainstream uses of this strategy. Since I want it to reinforce belonging and community, I don’t want to use it for forced memorization of academic vocabulary; and since I want it to have an authentic connection to my students and the positive classroom community I hope to create, I don’t want to use random childish responses if I can avoid it. Ideally, I think I just want two cues and responses – one for attention getting / community reinforcing, and another as a norm’d way to give a communal positive response to acknowledge growth from a student or when they take a risk (or maybe those are two different things?).

Which I think leaves me with: what should those responses be? I debated adapting the one from the high school in Code Switch to “We Are” -> “Computer Scientists”, but it seems kind of unwieldy. I also thought about tying it to my school – our mascot is a Panther, so incorporating that somehow – but I’d really rather tie it to the sense of “I can do computer science” so that every time they say it they’re participating in positive self-talk. I’m also drawing a blank on a way for students to respond after presentations or explaining answers or getting past a difficulty in class.

Maybe there are things you do in your classroom? Maybe you disagree with some of my interpretations above? Maybe you’ve got some insight to help me figure out how I can leverage this strategy in an authentic way to help increase a sense of belonging in my class for all students? I’m still trying to figure this out before school starts in a month…


From → Classroom Theory

  1. Angela Watson permalink

    HI there, I got a notification about this post because you linked to my blog as an example of a call-and-response article you didn’t like. Can I ask what was missing for you? The 8 tips at the beginning of the article talk about regional ideas, culturally inclusive ideas, character and life lessons, reinforcing class culture, etc. Those seem like the type of thing you were looking for. What could I do to make that article more helpful?

    • Hi Angela! Thanks for reading my little post as I try to figure out this particular strategy. I went back and re-read the strategies at the start of your blog and I think you’re right – those strategies are definitely more in-line with how I’m thinking about using Call & Response in my classroom, especially using cultural and regional context to create the call and response.

      I still think the list of 50 examples doesn’t really fit my needs, but then again, maybe I’m not the target audience – I can see those strategies working well for elementary and middle school children moreso than my high school children. Making it ‘more helpful’ for me may make it less helpful for one of those teachers looking for call-and-response energizers or attention-getters in their classroom, so I’m not sure that I’d really make any changes. If anything, reading your strategies and then reading your list helped convince me that coming up with an authentic call-and-response for my specific context is more difficult than it seems, probably because it should be tied to *my* students and *their* culture which makes it difficult for me to use some of the more generalized lists that are out there.


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