Because of the growing emphasis on social-emotional learning in education, the focus has been on using culturally responsive (CR) techniques to get students motivated and engaged by creating a classroom community that is affirming and validating.  This is where many who want to be more culturally responsiveness stop.

But, what do we do once we have their attention?  It’s when we use familiar cultural techniques to help facilitate thinking that makes CR powerful.

As culturally responsive educators, we have to build a toolkit of techniques that act as cognitive scaffoldings for students working to understand content.  We also need to know how to use our tools effectively.

 Building Our Toolkit

The tools in our CR toolkit revolve around five cultural “archetypes” or universal patterns used to help children process information and learn:  ritual, recitation, rhythm, repetition, and relationships.  (More about these archetypes in future posts).

While these five are universal elements in communities of color, how it looks in African American culture might vary slightly from how it looks in Latino or Pacific Islander culture. Still they are a common thread across cultures.

The first tool I believe we should have in our kit is call and response.  It is a discourse pattern associated with African American religious tradition, but the technique can be traced beyond the early days of the Black church to other oral cultures around the world. It combines two of the archetypes: ritual and repetition.

During call and response there’s an energetic back and forth between speaker (usually the teacher ) and listeners (the class).  The teacher gives a “call” in the form of a question or a statement to be completed which is answered by the “response” of the group.

I know. I know.  Nothing new. We’ve all heard of it.  Yet, in my experience, many educators say they’ve heard of it as a key CR strategy, while few know how to use it effectively.

Too often it’s used just as a fun energizer with no real academic purpose like in this example.  Recently Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion (it’s technique # 23) has made it a tool for active academic review.

 Lemov suggests these four ways to use it, from the less “challenging” to more rigorous.

  1. Review of information:  The class repeats what the teacher said, therefore reviewing the concept o reinforcing the answering behavior:  i.e. “George Washington was the first president of the United States.  Class, who was the first president of the United States?”  Class:  “George Washington.”

  1. Reinforce:  You reinforce new information or a strong answer by asking the class to repeat it.  “Jonathon, please tell us what this part of the expression is called.” Jonathon: “Exponent.”  Teacher:  “Excellent.  Class, what is this part of the expression called?” “Exponent.”

  1. Review:  Call and response can be used to review material covered earlier. I.E.:  Yesterday, class, we talked about exponents.  What did we talk about yesterday?”  Class “Exponents.”

  1. Solve:  The teacher asks the class to solve a problem and call out the answer in unison.”  If the length of our rectangle is ten inches, and the width is twelve inches, what is the area of the rectangle? ”  Class:  “120 square inches.”  “How many?”  “120 inches!”

 Other educators call the technique “choral response” — different name, but same idea.  Watch the clip to see the teacher explain how she uses it. 

Processing Information to Build Understanding

As helpful as it is to use call and response as a tool for academic review in a way that feels familiar for students, it is also a strong tool for building cognitive connections.  In his book, Creating Opportunity for Learning, urban sociologist and educator, Pedro Noguera, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at NYU points to information processing as a key ingredient in closing achievement gaps.

 Higher- or deeper-level learning/performance operations build on more basic [information processing] operations. Consequently, mastering basic operations is, to some degree, a prerequisite for mastering more complex operations, yet, in practice, basic and more “advanced” operations go hand in hand.

 Processing information involves four key “thinking dispositions”:

  • Making distinctions between things and other things — how are they the same or different

  • Organizing things into systems of part-whole structures –how do things fit together into a system

  • Identifying action-reaction relationships between things — how do particular things interact with each other?

  • Shifting perspectives from one thing (point) to another (view) — what’s the narrative and counter-narrative?

One urban educator, Augusta Mann, an expert in culturally responsive pedagogy for African American children, uses call and response to help students think rather than simply review.

To get the full flavor of this approach, watch her demo with other educators call and response in her  literacy strategy, Pronoun Boxes, designed to help track pronouns and their antecedents when reading.

She and the class (the callers) read the paragraph, stopping at a pronoun and tapping the pointer in the box.  On that cue, she has one student (the responder) call out the proper noun that the pronoun stands for.  She makes the point at the top of the clip that the responder is calling out what she as the reader should be thinking as she reads.  In this instance, call and response is focused on thinking about the relationship between pronouns and the unseen nouns they represent, making it explicit what the pronouns he, it, and that refer to in the text.

It’s like an interactive think aloud.

Putting It into Practice

In order to use call and response effectively, you’ve got to be intentional in its set up and implementation. Here are a few tips.

 1.  Decide its purpose —  academic review, concept reinforcement, or information processing.  You can use it all three ways, just be clear about the intent and outcome when you do use it.

 2.  Decide on a cue to use that signals to the class when it’s their turn to respond.

 3.  Spend some time explaining the procedure to the class and connecting it to other ways call and response shows up.

 4.  Practice getting the class to answer in unison.  It might take a minute to get everyone in the rhythm.

 5.  Practice getting the energy level right.  It’s supposed to be lively, but not out of control. Remember it’s not a cheerleading session.

Next week, we will take a closer look at the neuroscience of call and response.