My job at UVEI has allowed me the time and space for reflection, the opportunity to see lots of instruction in many different schools, and to learn a lot about teaching. Among the many aspects of my own practice I’ve rethought, participation strategies are an a-ha! breakthrough.

It’s not easy to rethink existing teaching practices, let alone try or invent new ones. According to Edwin Land, an American scientist, inventor and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, innovation happens when there’s a “sudden cessation of stupidity.” That’s a difficult concept to accept. Who wants to believe that one’s thinking was ever stupid?  

But, if I’m honestly reflecting, I’m afraid that I utilized only a few participation strategies in my own instruction– and, boy, does that seem stupid now! 

There’s an amazing difference between the classroom in which a few students are wearing out rotator cuffs by waving hands in the air while the rest of the room sits silently, and a classroom where every student is engaged. In fact, according to a 2014 Grant Wiggins blog post, students are sitting passively and rarely speaking during most of their day. 

Here are four key goals of effective participation strategies, according to Anthony Muhammad and Sharroky Hollie (2012):

  1. Equity of voice: All students are engaged in a range of participation types that cater to different discourse styles, cultural forms, and ways of thinking.
  2. Engagement: All students are thinking and responding to the topics.
  3. Checking for understanding: Teacher gets information about all students’ thinking and comprehension.
  4. Classroom environment: The routines of the classroom draw students into the desired interactions (as opposed to emphasizing stopping undesirable interactions).

Last Tuesday, during our teacher intern seminar, after I posed an open-ended question, I pulled a Popsicle stick from a glass ball jar and spoke the name of one of my interns printed on the stick. I could feel the room start to buzz with anticipation. I had told them I would pull a name, that person would respond to a question; I’d pull another name, and he or she would paraphrase what the previous intern said, then respond or add on. There were a few people in the room who looked as if they had tasted something bitter. Or as if they might sidle out the room to go to the bathroom at any moment. However, we’ve been clear: interns need to use varying participation strategies during lessons, and we would model those strategies.

I modeled the same type of participation strategies during a graduate course with experienced teachers. The reaction from some of these experienced educators was even more extreme than that of our interns. A few admitted to feeling a visceral reaction as they waited to be called upon to answer a question out loud. I’m sure this is how students feel when they know they may be called upon to participate at any given moment. 

I don’t think this is a bad thing.

After some oral rehearsal (turn and talk), every student should be ready to participate in class in some way.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, recounted a teacher’s reflection on participation: “‘There must have been times (still are?) where an outside observer would see my lessons as a small discussion group surrounded by many sleepy onlookers.’” Even adults who want to become teachers, who are voluntarily giving up their time to come to seminars every Tuesday, would rather be members of the sleepy onlookers club if I allowed it. They’re adults with busy lives; it would be nice to sit in class and have a little time to daydream. But that’s not why we’re here. So I make sure that every intern participates during our lessons.

To learn, we know engagement is key for everyone– for students on IEPs, English language learners, academically motivated students, and reticent students, to name a few subgroups. So we use participation strategies with our teaching candidates: popsicle sticks, think-pair-share, elbow partners, numbered heads together, turn and talk, pose-pause-bounce-pounce, agree/disagree, paraphrase and respond. My advice is to Google a few, then intentionally add them to your lesson plans. As a start, I’ve summarized a few below. It will be uncomfortable at first if it’s not a part of the class culture, but students quickly get used to it. One teacher explained to me that she recently started using the popsicle sticks in her classroom, and when she was absent the students pulled out the sticks and told the substitute she needed to use them. That’s amazing.

Utilizing participation strategies is not an innovation. As our executive director, Page Tompkins, pointed out, they’re not even the main event in a lesson. But I’m convinced they’re as important as turning on the lights, as writing on the whiteboard. My advice is to warmly demand 100% participation in your classroom tomorrow.

Strategies, again, from Anthony Muhammad and Sharroky Hollie (2012):

  • Equity sticks: Teacher asks a question, pauses, and then pulls a student’s name. After that student response, the teacher removes their name from the pile. This introduces randomness, reduces teacher bias, and gives every student the feeling that they could be called on.
  • Raise hand/Wait time: Students raise a hand, teacher gives time for the first and second wave of hands to go up (and may prompt a third wave) before calling on somebody. This activity gives slower processors an opportunity to engage.
  • Elbow partner/Think-pair-share: Elbow partner – students engage with a partner around the question. Think-pair-share – students have a moment of think time, discuss with a partner, and then share with another pair or the class. Teacher can require the sharer to include the partner’s point of view to encourage active listening. This activity provides everyone with some talk time.
  • Give one get one: After thinking or journaling about a topic, students get up and find someone across the room with whom to share their thoughts or answers. Students receive an idea in exchange for giving one. This activity gives students choice and provides an opportunity for movement. 
  • Shout out: Students softly shout out responses in unison. The teacher can record shout-outs on the board, if appropriate. Questions can require either one correct answer or a variety of answers. This activity actively engages students and validates and affirms culturally different forms of discourse.
  • Numbered heads together: The teacher puts students in groups of four to six, numbering each student within each group. When asked a question, students work together in their groups to find the best answer. When called together again, the teacher rolls a die and asks the students from all groups whose number was rolled to stand. Each student then reports his or her group’s answer. This activity helps to form a consensus and encourage accountability.


Muhammad, A. & Hollie, S. (2012). The will to lead, the skill to teach: Transforming schools at every level. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press
Wiliam, Dylan. Embedded Formative Assessment. N.p.: Solution Tree, 2011.