Class Cards

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Class Cards and the document camera

I was at a charter middle school the other day to make a short presentation to the staff. As I was setting up, the principal came into the auditorium to remind me that, prior to my talk, one of the teachers was going to present a 15-minute video that showed some of my techniques being used in her math class. Apparently she had learned these strategies from both the Eight Great Ideas book and by hearing about them from another teacher.

I've got to admit, it was pretty cool watching a teacher using some of my ideas. After more than twenty years of presenting ideas, this was the first time I had actually seen my strategies being displayed on the big screen. It was a moment I won't soon forget.

Anyway, what really struck me was how she was using a set of Class Cards to call upon the students. It was a simple thing but a big thing.

As she drew a card, she would place it face up underneath the document camera so that the students could all see who was being called upon.

Blew me away.

You see, I'm not really doc-cam savvy. In fact, everyone at my school was given a document camera the year after I left. (Thank you very much.) Although I've used one every now and then during a talk, I never had the opportunity to live with one in a classroom. And living with something is one of the best ways to figure out how to really get the most out of it.

I'd like to think that I would have eventually figured out that placing cards under the camera would be a playful addition to all of the other ways I've learned to use a set of cards. The reality, though, was that I hadn't. Not even close. Consequently, the impact of seeing a new way to use cards coupled with the slap-my-forehead-why-didn't-I-think-of-that moment of chagrin was striking.

A new idea! And a great one! This is something I'll be able to share with other teachers whenever I'm talking about Class Cards. That just doesn't happen very often. Nonetheless, I'm always grateful when it does.

When the video was over I shared my enthusiasm and appreciation of her new idea. I also pointed out that the one change I would make would be to refrain from calling the name of the student whose card is being displayed. (That's what the teacher did.) There'd be no need for that. The fact that the card can clearly be seen by anyone would be enough.

I can just picture it. The teacher poses a question, pauses a moment, and then places a card face-up under the camera. Without any further prompting from the teacher, the student would know to offer a response which the teacher could acknowledge with a "Thanks." Another card is placed under the camera, another student responds, and another simple acknowledge is given. After a number of students had responded, the teacher could then share her own thoughts on the question that was asked and then move on the next question.

Oh, yeah.

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Class Cards as a parting gift

Middle school teacher (during a seminar break):
I've been using Class Cards--made with playing cards, not index cards--with my middle school students for years. At the end of the year, I take a group shot of each period and have small prints made. I then glue a copy of their class picture on the back of each student's card. The cards are then handed out to the students on the last day of school as a memento.

Since middle school students don't receive an actual class picture the way elementary school students do, I thought this might make for a nice memory of our time together. It takes some effort to do this for six different periods, but I've learned that it's something most of my students really appreciate.


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Teacher who didn't know

I was using index cards to call upon teachers for their input. The question, which is asked a lot toward the end of a seminar, had to do with the yet-to-be-indentified fifth student need.

Student needs

Anyway, I called upon a dozen or so teachers and got responses from most of them. Whenever a teacher asked for more time to develop a response, I merely responded with, "Take your time" and then set that card aside and called upon someone else. After calling upon several more teachers I would go to the More Time cards and call upon them one-by-one. At this point I almost always get a response. I thank the teacher and return the card to the stack of already-called-upon-and-responded cards.

However, there was one teacher who kept asking for more time. (And I'm okay with that.) But after four or five repeat requests for a response, I decided to not push it. I thanked everyone for sharing their thoughts and then informed them that "love" was the missing need. Everyone wrote that in the empty rectangle in their seminar guides and I then wrapped up the seminar with a few closing remarks.

What was funny was that the teacher who never responded came over to the table where I was packing up my seminar stuff to return some unused evaluation forms. While she was there, I asked her what the missing need had been.

Without a bit of a hesitation:

With a smile:
Right you are.
Thanks for being here tonight.

No, thank you. I learned a lot.

I can't tell you how many times in my own class I had these types of interactions. Students who had not responded to a question during a lesson were able to provide the correct response when I spoke with them privately after the lesson had concluded.

What I'm trying to say is that I think it's helpful to keep in mind that learning doesn't happen for everyone at the same time. But with a bit of perseverance and some timely follow-up, you can verify that it did happen. This should help to reduce your stress and allow you to provide some latitude to your students during lessons and interactions.

Important: Without the visual reminder the set-aside card provided, I wouldn't have thought to check with her about the missing need.

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You didn't call on me

I was using index cards to call upon teachers for their opinion about something and had called upon 12 to 15 of them. At that point, I offered a word of thanks for all of the responses and then proceeded to set the cards down. As soon as I put down the cards--an obvious signal that I wasn't going to be calling upon anyone else, I saw a teacher in the back of the room throw up his hands in mock disgust. His exclamation of, "Oh, man!" showed me that he had an opinion he had wanted to share but wasn't called upon to do so.

Turning his direction, I said, "I'm sorry. Did you want to say something?"

He told me he did but didn't want to interrupt. (What a good guy. Playing by the rules and exercising self-control.) I then proceeded to tell everyone the strategy I use for just these kinds of situations.

Addressing the group:
I don't always use the cards to call upon students. That would not only be too restrictive, it would hinder students from developing the oh-so-important skill of raising a hand so that they can voluntarily share a thought. Raising a hand in order to: 1) join a discussion; or 2) respond to teacher prompts during a lesson is something every student needs to be able to do in order to get the best education possible. Unfortunately, if the teacher only calls upon volunteers, the predictable outcome is that the overachievers will dominate the discussion and the underachievers will check out. That's definitely not a good thing.

Hmmm. Sounds like a problem in need of a solution.

Continuing the thread:

The method I used to balance these two needs--making sure everyone is staying with the lesson while at the same time encouraging students to become independent responders--was to take volunteer responses. I did this by putting the deck behind my back and then forming a V with my other hand. This sign lets my students know that I'm not using the cards at the moment but, instead, would like to have anyone who wished to volunteer a thought to raise a similar V hand to indicate that.

I would then call upon several volunteers before getting back to using the deck. All in all, it was a simple strategy that allowed many of my overachievers to increase their level of participation.

When I had finished this explanation, I again turned toward the teacher in the back of the room, lowered the deck of cards, and held up the V sign. He immediately raised his own V hand. I then called upon him so that he was able to share his original thought.

Let's call that a Win-Win.

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He's got the cards

I had just asked a group of teachers to share what they thought might be additional student needs. (They already had power, fun, and freedom written down.) And although I had picked up my set of index cards and tapped them loudly against the table top as an indication that I was about to call upon teachers randomly, two of the teachers in the group raised a hand to respond to my question.

I stretched out my arm and showed everyone the set of cards in my hand.

I've done this for years in the classroom to show my students that I'm not going to call on anyone with a hand up. I want to use the cards for determining who is called upon. It was kind of funny how instinctive the move was. I've rarely done it during twenty-plus years of conducting seminars. However, now that I've started to use the Class Cards during a presentation and not just demonstrate their use at the conclusion of the day, I've become aware of how much similarity there is between my classroom experience and the seminar experience. As soon as I saw hands raised, I held out the cards. Instinct at work.

Well, I knew what I meant by the display of cards. They didn't. So I explained.

Addressing the group:
When you first start using a set of cards in your classroom, you're going to see students raising a hand up to respond the question you just asked. This should not be too surprising. They've been doing this 'raise a hand to show that you'd like to be called upon' routine for as long as they've been students. It's a conditioned response that has been internalized from years of practice.

If, however, you want to use the cards to randomly distribute response opportunities, they need to know that. The easiest way to indicate your intent is to just hold out your hand with the cards and show the class. As I do this, I usually say, 'He's got the cards.' Within a day or two, students will say, "He's got the cards," for me so that I don't have to. Within a week or two, no one will have to say a thing. They'll all understand what I mean when I hold out the cards for everyone to see.

Lo and behold, the same thing happened with the teachers in the group as the day progressed. I held out the cards--with a smile on my face--in response to a raised hand. I would then see the hand lowered and the teacher acknowledge that the message had been received.

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"I don't know yet."

I was using a set of 3X5 cards to call upon some student teachers toward the end of a presentation. We had one last student need--love--to fill in before we called it a day.

Shuffling the cards:
What do you think is the missing need?

Several of them gave me a response. Four or five of them, though, responded with, "I don't know, yet." As I usually do, I set the "I don't know, yet" cards aside in their own little pile. I continued to call upon them until I had gotten a response from about a dozen of them.

Putting the deck of cards down:
If you said or thought love, you're correct. And in the classroom, love is just looking for the good in students.

As they were writing the word love in their seminar guides, I picked up the cards from the "I don't know yet" pile and called upon three of them. Each one was able to respond that love was the missing need.

And that's how you want to handle it when students do say, "I don't know yet." You'll want to get back to them at some point in the lesson to see they now know.

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The quick response

I was using the index cards once again to call upon teachers. With only about 15 minutes to go before the end of the workshop, I asked them what they thought was the student need we hadn't identified yet. (They had power, fun, freedom, and safety already written in the rectangles on page 2 of their seminar guides. We hadn't had enough time to get to the newest need, belonging, and were going to end with the fifth of the original basic needs.)

Student Needs

So, I started to call upon teachers for their opinion. And whether it was a combination of me not being clear in what I had asked or the fact that I hadn't provided them with enough time to formulate a response, the teachers called upon were clearly not prepared to do so.

I called the name of the teacher whose card was at the top of the deck. She raised a timid hand to identify where she was sitting. (My students don't have to do this because I learn their names and faces. During a seminar, though, there isn't time to do that so I ask the teacher being called upon to raise a hand so I know where to direct my attention.)

Teacher 1
A little surprised to be called upon:

I asked, 'What do you think is the missing need on page 2?'

I then saw her turn to that page--wow, I guess I hadn't made that part clear--and ponder the possibilities.

Would you like more time?

Teacher 1
Somewhat relieved:
Yes, please.

You keep thinking. We'll get back to you.

I set her card aside so that I would remember to get back and then called the name of the next teacher.

Teacher 2
After a pause:
Another pause:
I don't know.

I then shared with them that my students don't respond with, "I don't know." It's an Old School message that just doesn't do us much good. It's too much of a dead-end street and a real interaction killer. My students know to respond with, "I don't know, yet." The psychological implication of the word "yet" is that the student is going to know in just a bit.

He then changed his response to I don't know, yet, and I set his card aside. I looked at the next card and called the name.

Bam! Instant response from this teacher.

No pause. No hesitation. Just a quick response which meant that he had not only heard my question but had taken the time to formulate his answer.

Showing obvious pleasure:
There you go. That's what you are going to get by the end of the month as you use Class Cards with your own students. For the first four weeks you're going to be swimming upstream. This is especially true if your students have never experienced Class Cards. It will be four weeks of you patiently, but firmly, teaching and reinforcing the skill of having a response prepared. But that will be four weeks well spent. Because by week five, you'll find most of your students will have developed the skill of not only having a response prepared but delivering promptly when called upon.

I then called upon the two teachers whose cards had been set aside. I got an opinion on the missing need from both of them.

Wanting to prove a point:
Okay. Here we go. I'm going to call names rather quickly. When you hear your name, don't raise a hand. Just tell us what you think is the need.

I then started calling out name after name after name. From each of the dozen teachers called upon, I received an almost immediate response.

With a nod of my head;
There you go. That's what it's going to be like. Responsive students who are engaged and thinking. And only because the students will have learned, having been called upon randomly and regularly for a few weeks, that they need to be ready with a thought.

It's a beautiful thing.

(For those of you playing the Student Need game at home, the missing need

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A funny response with a happy ending

I was using a set of Class Cards during an interaction with a group of teachers when I posed the following question:

"What have you learned so far today that you'll be able to use in your own classroom?"

I shuffled the cards and then called upon several teachers. I then called on a teacher named Richie. Almost immediately, a dozen or so teachers started to laugh.

Turning to Richie--each teacher called upon knows to raise a hand so that we know where he is sitting--I asked, "Hey, man. How come they're laughing?"

"Look at the grade I gave myself," he replied. (When I had each teacher fill out an index card, I ask them to grade themselves as a teacher and as a student at staff development activities. Richie had given himself an "F" as a student. I love that kind of irreverence.)

"They must know you, huh?" I said. More laughter this time.

"I'm sure they mean well," I offered. Then, after a brief pause, I continued with, "So, what have you learned?"

He then looked over his annotated seminar guide. After a bit of time, I asked him, "Would you like me to come back to you?"

"Yeah," he responded somewhat sheepishly. And with a background of laughter, I continued on to the next card in the deck.

Five minutes later--having called upon several teachers in addition to sharing my own opinion about a number of issues--I looked over on my table and saw Richie's card still sitting alone.

One of the best things about using a set of Class Cards is that they enable me to get back to students who had requested more processing time. They're not ignored or forgotten because the physical presence of a card set aside acts as a visual reminder to get back to that student and see if he now has a response. This is not something I could do without the assistance of the card. There's just too much going on in the class to mentally hang on to that detail.

"Hey, Richie. How are you coming along with your answer?" I asked.

Once again there was a bit of laughter. Not as much as before but still noticeably present. Richie was surprised that I was getting back to him and he immediately went back to his notes.

As I waited for a response, I said to everyone, "You should all know that I've been keeping an eye on Richie as I called upon other teachers. The whole time I was calling on others he was going through his seminar guide looking for an idea he could share." Turning to him, I said, "It's okay, buddy. I've got faith in you. I know you've learned something today. I can see it in your attitude. What have you got?"

"I think I could use a set of cards with my own students to help them stay involved," he said. (Or at least I think that was his response. Richie: if you're reading this and you remember what you said, please email me. I'll amend this post.)

"Thanks, Richie."

No gushing. No flowery praise. Just a simple word of appreciation for the effort he had made.

Besides, the important message of how much I cared about him as a student was not contained in what I said to his eventual response. It was, instead, contained in the fact that I did not overlook him. I went back to him to see how he was doing. And it was all made possible by the fact that I had set aside his card.

It's situations such as these--the give-and-take of teacher/student diaglogues--that remind me about how great it was being in the classroom interacting with my students during lessons and discussions. And for that, I say again, "Thanks, Richie."

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Those tricky Class Cards

Once again I was using a set of 3 X 5 index cards with teachers' names on them as my deck of Class Cards. During my interactions with the group, I posed this question: "What do you think might be another student need?"

They had already written Power and Fun in two of the rectangles on page 2 of the seminar guide we were using.

Two student needs

I didn't really expect anyone to know the other needs yet. That would have been a pleasant surprise. All I was looking for was an opinion, not an answer.

After calling upon several teachers, I called upon someone who didn't have a response ready. She actually seemed a bit surprised to hear her name.

It's the same thing I experienced every year with a new class as I introduced them to the reality of being called upon randomly to respond. It usually took about four weeks before they switched from somewhat-checked-out mode to fully-engaged-and-ready-to-respond mode. That's okay with me. We've got all year.

Anyway, I waited for a response and then asked, "Would you like some more time to think?"

The teacher nodded her head and so I set her card aside as a reminder to me to get back to her in a moment.

Setting the card aside is a strategy I used constantly in my own room. And modeling what I did in my own room is critical, I think, to a teacher's understanding of the strategies I'm trying to impart.

I called upon a few more teachers and then picked up her card and called her name. Again, no response. Also, no eye contact which, in certain situations, can be an indication of discomfort.

After going back to her three or four times, she finally offered a response. I then thanked her for her response and followed it up by making a comment about how students in the classroom will have to experience the same interaction in order for them to realize that they can't just sit and watch what's going on.

Well, I could tell by the look on her face that I had embarrassed her in front of her peers. Although it certainly wasn't my intent, my comment about a student's initial inattentiveness could have been misconstrued as an indictment of her unreadiness to respond.

What I should have done, I now realize, was to just let it go.

It's what I would have done in my own classroom. I would have set aside the card as a reminder to speak with the student about needing to be a part of our lessons and discussions. This is always a more effective technique with students who are hesitant to speak than it is to keep calling upon them repeatedly. At a certain point, I've got to cut the loss and move on. Then, later on when I have the time, I could call over the student and privately share my concerns. And while we spoke I would be thinking about the fact that I've got this student all year. We don't have to conquer every problem immediately. It's this kind of crock-pot approach that can work really well with many students.

Good intentions notwithstanding, I kept going back to this one teacher. And although she did eventually respond, I shouldn't have persisted the way I did. My bad.

As a form of apology--and if you are that person and are reading this post, please accept my most sincere apology--I'll make sure to apply this lesson to the next teacher who shows a repeated reluctance to respond.

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Class Cards and reciprocal teaching

Midway through Day 1 of a two-day training, I passed out 3 X 5 index cards and asked the teachers to write their names at the top of the card. The cards were then collected and I began to use them to randomly call upon the teachers based upon whose card came up. (Up until that point, I had been taking responses from teachers who wished to volunteer a response. Not the best way to go, I'll grant, because people can choose to check out if they wish; nonetheless, I wanted to get a feel for their overall desire to contribute to the conversation.)

At the next break, one of the teachers, who was seated in the last row of the room, came up to me and said, "Hey, Rick. You should have seen everyone sit up a little straighter when they figured out that you were going to start calling upon them randomly."

"Yeah, it's funny to watch and happens at just about every seminar whenever I crack out the cards. Let's see how they handle it when I actually call upon someone who doesn't have a hand up. That should be entertaining, eh?"

Later on, when I was discussing how a Check Off Sheet (COS) can help a teacher focus on students who need attention, I directed their attention to the sample shown below. It documented the completion of math assignments by my students.

Math Check Off Sheet

I had used it to collect Monday's assignment. At 1:45, I heard from four students--Fabian, #11; Heather, #13; Marshall, #19; and Megan, #20--that they weren't finished. Their numbers were circled.

At the end of Tuesday's math time, two students weren't finished--Calvin, #6 and Marshall, #19--and Fabian, #11, was absent.

On Friday, as my students began to work independently on the activity sheet I had given them, I filled in the assignment information and triangled the numbers of the two students who were absent. Then, before I set the Math COS next to the collection box, I looked back over Monday's and Tuesday's results and realized that I needed to go see one of my students right now to find out how he's doing.

"If you could only go see one student right now," I asked the teachers as I shuffled their index cards, "who would you go see?"

As the teachers responded, I put their cards in separate piles. There was a pile for everyone who said, "I don't know yet." There was another pile for everyone who said, "Number 11." That pile actually began to grow as more and more teachers heard others say, "Number 11," and so said it themselves. There was a third pile for everyone who said, "Number 19."

Out of the twelve or so teachers I ended up calling upon, only one of them said, "Number 19," which was the correct response.

Now then, here's the point I'm trying to make. Since I had placed their cards in piles based upon their responses, I was able to go back and call upon the one teacher who had said, "Number 19."

"Elena. Who should you go see right now?" I asked again.

"Number 19," she repeated calmly.


"Because he didn't finish Monday's assignment and he didn't finish Tuesday's assignment," she answered.

I then took over the teaching by pointing out to everyone that: 1) Marshall's number was circled on both days which means he hadn't finished; and 2) we can't talk to Fabian right now because he is absent. I should go see Marshall.

What I should have done was allow Elena to continue the instruction in my place. Something like this:

"Elena, how did you know Marshall hadn't finish either assignment?"

"Well, his number is circled both days."

"Thank you. And why can't we talk to Fabian?"

"Because he's absent."

"How do you know that?"

"His number has a triangle around it. A triangle represents an absence."

"Well said, Elena. Thanks for your help."

Looking back a day or so later, I realize it would have been better to have her do the whole thing. Live and learn, I guess.

But at least I was able to use her as a resource for reteaching. And the only reason I was able to do that was that I had taken the time to put the cards of responding teachers in separate piles based upon their responses. Had I not done that, of course, I would have been at a loss as to which one of the many teachers called upon had actually provided the correct response.

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A word about sensitivity

I called my wife from the hotel that night to see how she and my son were doing. Toward the end of our conversation, I mentioned the situation about the index cards and the teachers' responses. (Posted above.)

"Aren't you afraid of putting people on the spot by calling upon them randomly?" she asked. "Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a group of people, you know."

"No way, babe. These are teachers. They're used to public speaking."

"Well, maybe you should ask them how they feel about it," she suggested.

"Sure. I can do that," I said, thinking that no one would say a word about it.

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Day 2 began with me discussing my conversation with my wife from the previous night.

"My wife thinks I need to be concerned about the possibility that some of you may not feel comfortable being called upon to respond in a random fashion. I told her that I would find out today and see if that's true. So, I'm asking: would anyone like to have your card removed from the deck?"

There was a bit of awkward silence and some side conversation, but not a single person raised a hand.

"No one, huh?" I asked and then paused for a response.

I was just about to move on, when one of the teachers said,
"Maybe you should allow anyone who wishes to have the card removed to see you at the next break. After all, if they are that shy about speaking, they're going to be shy about raising a hand right now."

Well, of course that makes sense and I said so.

I went on to explain how I used to use the same procedure when I was taking scores or grades from my students orally. Every student knew that if you didn't want to announce your score out loud you could come up to me and whisper it to me. (I made sure the class realized that sharing a grade privately did not necessarily indicate a low grade or an embarrassing score. Maybe the student is just being modest and doesn't want to show off a great grade. Maybe the student just wants some personal contact with me. Let's just not assume the worst.)

Anyway, at the very first break, one of the teachers approached me.

"Could you remove my card from the deck?" she asked in a somewhat hesitant fashion.

"Sure I can," I smiled in reply. "Why do you ask?"

"I don't feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group."

"But you're a teacher. You do that all the time, don't you?"

"Yes, but that's different. They're not my peers. It's when I'm in a group of teachers that I start to feel pressure at speaking."

"Okay. I'll remove your card. But how am I going to know you're staying with our discussions and not drifting off?"

"Well, yeah, I do have a problem with paying attention sometimes."

Yikes. Now what do I do? She's just admitted she has a bit of attention-deficit but, at the same time, is clearly troubled by the prospect of being called upon to speak.

As much as I didn't want to--because I have such high expectations for my students--I said, "Let's remove your card right now so that you don't have to worry about this any longer." I showed her the deck and allowed her to find the one with her name on it. "I'm glad you said something. I certainly wouldn't want anyone to feel any pressure or stress during one of my seminars. Thanks for being brave enough to come up and speak with me."

She seemed quite relieved as she walked away, and I realized that her decrease in stress would most likely result in an increase the amount of information you would take in and process over the remainder of the day. (This concept is called the low academic filter. That is, reduced anxiety leads to improved achievement.)

And so, for the rest of that day, she wasn't called upon but I did make a lot more visual eye contact with her to assess her involvement. All in all, a win-win situation.

Reality: Could you do this with your own students? Allow one or more students to have their cards removed from your deck of cards? In a word, no. They shouldn't be allowed to make that determination. And since they don't have this option, it's incumbent upon us to make sure that the use of cards is done in a safe and non-threatening manner so that those students who are reluctant to speak in front of the group are supported and nurtured until such time as speaking in front of the group becomes a non-issue.



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