Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Popsicle Stick Solution

I rarely call on students who have raised hands.  In fact, students do not raise their hands in my class unless there is a fire.  They know that they are ALL responsible for being able to think through and answer whatever task I give them.

This is perhaps best teaching tip I ever received - and I think my husband gave it to me, genius that he is!  While this takes just moments to prepare, is easy to institute, and requires very little pre-teaching time, it is perhaps the simplest way to get full student involvement and alertness.  Now isn't that something ALL teachers pine for?  Yearn for?  Would sell their souls for?


1. Simply buy enough popsicle sticks that is double the amount of your class (or eat the equivalent number of popsicles).

2. Write each student's name with a marker on a popsicle stick.  (Do it twice so you have two sets.)

3. Put the popsicle sticks in two separate containers in parts of the room where you are often doing group instruction.

4. Whenever you are doing an activity that calls for participation, tell the students you will be using the popsicle sticks, rather than taking hands.

5. When students wave their hands and yell, "Pick me; pick me," ignore them and pull out a popsicle stick and call on that student instead.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.


Using popsicle sticks accomplishes a few very important things:

First, it ensures the same students are not continually responding to, participating and answering the questions while the others sit aside ambivialently, lost in their own worlds, knowing the teacher wouldn't dream of calling on them if they could call on "Chatty Cathy" with her arms flailing like a flag on a windy day.

Second, it keeps ALL students in a state of what Kath Murdoch calls "relaxed alertness."  They don't know whether they will be called on or not so they must prepare a response or be thinking of something to say when they are called on.  They know the classroom is a safe place to be and they will not be made fun of or judged (per our classroom essential agreements), and they know we will all be encouraging them to "give it a go."

Third, popsicle sticks can be used for creating impromptu groupings or partner activities.  In my class, I have a rule that no complaining is allowed, and we all agree that using the popsicle sticks when making groups, partners or choosing someone to do something is the most democratic and quickest method of getting on with the task at hand.  I use it for this purpose at least twice a day.

Third, popsicle sticks come in very handy when doing small group activities.  For example, I'll say something like, "Discuss with two people around you what makes this chapter so suspenseful and be prepared to give an example and an explanation.  You've got three minutes.  Then I'll be using the popsicle sticks."

(When using the popsicle sticks, students need to be given adequate thinking/preparation time so they aren't expected to give impromptu answers.)

This gives students who have a hard time coming up with ideas on their own the chance to chat about it with others, deepening their own understanding through the insights of others, while also giving them a little fire under their butts.  Having to actually explain (and being given adequate wait time) is a powerful experience for the shyer students or those who are inclined to drift off into their own worlds.

If you're heading off to the freezer section today, buy a couple of cartons of popsicles and start consuming them at a high rate of speed.  (Popsicles for breakfast, kiddos?)  Alternately, they are widely available at craft and stationary stores.  (That way you aren't stuck with the stains or stickiness, either.)


  1. I LOVE using popsicle sticks and also use them many times throughout the day. I use them to choose students to say the answers to something we are marking (also keeps them focused on the task) and to make groupings, facilitate discussions, choose 'jobs' and in all the ways you described. It is the 1 management strategy I know of that eliminates the need for too many others. I think I learned this from your husband as well, or maybe you had already adopted it by the time we taught next to one another.

  2. Popsicle sticks are a good idea. I take it one step further and ask another person in the class to repeat, paraphrase etc what that person has just said. It means that students get better at listening to each other and they also learn to speak a little louder and more clearly.