Silent, effective, and simple.
Most elementary classrooms have about 20 students. The raised hand is ambiguous. Restroom, water fountain, a question? As a the teacher, anything that simplifies is golden.
If you may feel that you are answering a student's request to the leave the room every time you turn around, try this hand signal system. Using it I've cut down on wasted time and retained most of my students' attention while also answering the one student who's hand is up. It also helps me not have to walk across the room just to approve a trip to the restroom.
This system of hand signals has been used in my classroom for the last 3 years (in Grade 1). The students use it easily and after a few weeks, they even try using it in other classes. Originally I wanted to use American Sign Language, but certain words such as "restroom" require a constant motion with the hand or are difficult to see across a room, so I've adapted some ASL signals and created some of my own.
Ms. Kottmann's Hand Signals
Two crossed fingers = Restroom
W with three fingers = Water
Both hands on top of head = Finished**
**The "Finished" signal is so useful when you are giving a spelling quiz or whole class Turn-Pair-Share. Visually you see when students are done working and the motion of putting their hands on their head usually means that the aren't holding or using their pencil.
Raised hand = Help, usually on a task OR if the request is unique to the individual. (Ex: "I accidentally have my brother's lunch box, may I take it to him?")
L with pointer and thumb = Library
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I often have whole group discussions with my class and have found that there are some hand signals that avoid the chaos of asking for opinions by "a show of hands" several times. Instead, ask once and see all results.
Thumb up = Agree
Thumb down = Disagree
Thumb to the side = Neutral OR Unconvinced
Tips of fingers touch side of forehead, hand is flat (looks like a salute) (ASL) = I Know
Used to show that the student has an answer to the current question.
Thumb and pinky extended, move signal from chest forward (ASL) = Me Too, Same
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One of my favorite games is Rock-Paper-Scissors. I use those hand signals to do a "check for understanding" after I've given directions. For instance, I'll have explained what students will be doing at a set of stations and before I let them start I say, "Okay, show me if you understand - Rock, Paper, Scissors, shoot!"
Rock = "I've got it! Solid understanding!"
Scissors = "I understand bits and pieces. If I struggle I'll let you know."
Paper = "My understanding is flat, I don't understand, I'm lost."
If I see an significant number of Paper I'll take questions as a whole group; if just a few I'll provide personal clarifications once everyone gets started. It's a simple (fun) habit that helps me remember to check that my students actually understood my directions.
Using signals takes some getting used to, but the benefits are worth it. You will streamline your classroom and find that you aren't answering a question every 10 seconds.
I love using these signals for simple requests because I can be presenting the beginning of a lesson, see a set of crossed fingers raised in the air, make eye contact, shake my head No, and simultaneous continue talking. I can be working with a student, glance up to check the room, see an "W" and nod Yes without leaving my current student.
I strongly suggest having a class meeting to discuss the use of hand signals in your classroom, see what your students need as acknowledgment of their request from you. (Is a nod enough, or should you gesture with an open palm to the door?) It can also be a time to come up with some new hand signals unique to the needs of your classroom - a good lesson on figuring out a need and solving it. Also, other teachers might start using them too! Haha!
Find out what works for you and your students, and let me know in the comments!
Happy teaching and traveling,