Last year when I was coaching, I learned a great technique from a veteran kindergarten teacher: “Phone a Friend.” I introduced it in my class yesterday, when we were having a quiet, slow day with 6 kids out sick.
“Today,” I said, “when we do the letter cards, I’m going to ask one person to tell me the name of the letter. If I ask you, and you don’t know it, then say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘no se.’ Then I’ll say, ‘phone a friend,’ and anyone who does know the name of the letter can raise their hand, and you can pick one to tell you the answer. Let’s try it.”
“Okay, Bunny, can you tell me what letter this is?” I asked, holding up the letter T.
“O!” she proclaimed excitedly.
“No, sweetie, this is not O. Let’s phone a friend. If you know the name of this letter, please raise your hand, and Bunny will pick one of you to say it.”
Several children raised their hands, but Bunny just looked at me.
“Bunny, can you see all those friends who raised their hands? Please pick one.”
Bunny pointed at Fox. “Do you want to call on Fox? Please say her name.”
“Fox,” Bunny said quietly, and then Fox called out “T!” triumphantly.
“Thank you Fox, that is the letter T. Okay, Bunny, what letter?”
“T” she answered. Phew, one letter down, many more to go.
The next child I called on knew the letter, but the child after that didn’t. I said “phone a friend,” and several children raised their hands. She called on Bunny, who then just sat there.
“Bunny, do you know what this letter is?” She shook her head. “That’s okay, but if you don’t know the answer, then you don’t need to raise your hand.” The next child called on was Deer, who was all excited. She did the same thing, and said nothing. “Deer, do you know what letter this is?” She also shook her head to indicate “no.”
“Okay, guys, if you don’t know the name of the letter, then please don’t raise your hand.”
But it happened again, and again.
“Boys and girls, if the name of the letter isn’t right there in your brain, and it’s not right there in your mouth ready to come out, then please don’t raise your hand, because that means you don’t know the answer,” I said, and perhaps the strain of being patient showed a bit in the tone of my voice.
So never mind what the kids learned; what did I learn from this experience? I learned that many of my kids don’t actually know the names of the letters we have been working on. I learned that many of my kids don’t know when they don’t know something. I learned that many of my kids think that they should raise their hands, but have no idea why — they don’t understand that raising your hands has an intention that goes with it — you raise your hand because you know something about what we are discussing, and you want to share your idea or answer. And I learned once again that some of my kids don’t even really get what a question actually is.