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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Streamlining Your Classroom - Hand Signals

Most elementary classrooms have about 15-25 students. Those students each have to use the restroom about 3x a day. They also want to get a drink from the water fountain about 2x a day (outside of those restroom trips). That means that you, as a the teacher, will be asked "May I go to the restroom?" and "May I get a drink of water?" a lot. A whole lot. If there isn't a set time to take all the students for a restroom break, you may feel that you are answering a student's request to the leave the room every time you turn around. Besides restroom and water breaks there are also the requests to go to the library, the computer lab, the nurse, another teacher's room, the office, etc. It can quickly feel like you are directing traffic more than teaching.

Then there is the ambiguity of the raised hand. Students know that a raised hand is the most appropriate way to get a teacher's attention. Unfortunately the raised hand doesn't give any indication of the message the student wishes to relay. Are they about to ask to use the restroom? Would they like a drink of water? Do they want assistance on the current task? Do they want to return a book to the library? So the teacher comes over to the individual student, engages them in brief conversation about the raised hand, and provides verbal direction ("Yes, you may", "No, not right now"). This exchange takes time; precious time and attention. I'm not advocating not spending time talking with children, but the constant redirection of your attention for simple requests is not cognitively beneficial. It's exhausting.

The way I combat this issue is by installing a system of hand signals that my students use to communicate these simple requests. 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 adapted some ASL signals and created some of my own.

Ms. Kottmann's Hand Signals

Two crossed fingers = Restroom

W with three fingers = Water

L with pointer and thumb = Library

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?")

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.

I often have discussions with my students - class meetings, debates - 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***
***See blog post about debates and the use of the "unconvinced" signal to teach summarizing and justifying.

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

One of my favorite games is Rock-Paper-Scissors. I decided to 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 continue. I can be working with a student, glance up to check the room, see an "L" 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, my students have told me that they enjoy having the signals and accidentally use them in other classes. Haha.

Find out what works for you and your students, and let me know in the comments!

Happy teaching and traveling,

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