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When teachers have discussions with their students in over-crowded classrooms, shouting, calling out and talking over others can become an unfortunate part of the process. But I recently figured out it doesn’t have to be.  And I have the 99% to thank.

The recent #OccupyWallStreet and wider #Occupy gatherings around the world have introduced many to the long established tradition of holding General Assemblies to have civilized, equitable, non-oppressive and productive discussions with each other.  This great video explains how General Assemblies (GAs) work:


In addition to being immediately transfixed by the organic power of People’s Mic, I was impressed at how a few simple hand gestures could help create a space where voices were heard, disagreements were civil and all people felt included. In short, the ideal classroom environment.

Since October 15th, I’ve attended a bunch of GAs in my participation with the #OccupyToronto movement. After learning and using the hand signals, I decided to teach them to my Grade 5/6 students.

They loved it.

Instead of shouting out agreement or disagreement, students showed their “Twinkle Fingers” of agreement or their down low twinkles of disagreement. Confusion or questions were shown by making a letter ‘C’ shape with their hand. This General Assembly Guide from the New York City General Assembly shows what each symbol looks like. And to ensure all voices were heard, not just the loudest, a “stack” or speakers list was put on the chalkboard.

It was amazing. For the first time in a long time, I was not repeatedly asking my “shouters” to be silent, we could all immediately take a “temperature check” on how people were feeling about the discussion (many twinkle fingers or just a few.) And for the first time, I could accurately and unobtrusively assess how some of my more shy, or lower performing students were feeling and thinking about our discussion. When the stakes of disagreement are lowered to merely wiggling your fingers to the floor, instead of voicing your opinion to a room of your peers (some of whom might be bullying you or just not like you), then it becomes easier for you to take a stand and make your feelings clear.

And besides all that, it is just plain fun.

There’s something addictive about twinkling. My kids were doing it during their private conversations in class and in other discussions where I hadn’t clearly stated that we were using them. During a math lesson when I asked if people understood our long division questions, instead of head nods or raised hands, I got twinkles. It was immediate formative assessment: Kids twinkling up got the math and dove into their work. Twinkles down meant they needed more support and I worked more with them. A low stakes, not embarrassing way of saying “I don’t get this stuff!”

I can’t wait to see how the GA hand gestures will transform our future discussions. And I can’t wait until other teachers bring them into their classrooms. To make that happen more quickly, I’m putting together a series of lesson plans that will show teachers how to do exactly that.

But more about that next time.

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