“I see the same hands”: Dealing with Discretionary Spaces

The teacher frowned as she looked out at her 25 students, only 3 of which had their hands raised — the same three students who always had their hands raised.

“I see the same hands,” she lamented aloud to the class. “Let’s get some new hands. I only want to hear from new people.”

What messages might this be communicating to her students?

The teacher’s intended message may have been:

  • I value participation from everyone.
  • I like to hear different perspectives and ideas.
  • Engagement is important to me.
  • We are one community.

But the students may have received starkly different messages. For example, students who do have their hands raised may have received the message that:

  • Your voice doesn’t matter here.
  • You aren’t following the class norm of non-participation, and now you’re singled out for this nonconformity. 
  • You don’t need to pay attention anymore.
  • I’m not going to call on you, anyway.

Students who do not have their hands raised may have received the message that: 

  • You aren’t doing what’s expected.
  • You don’t want to participate, so you’re lazy.
  • You don’t understand the content enough to participate, so you aren’t smart enough.
  • The three kids raising hands are smarter than you are.

What if the three students raising their hand happen to be white? Or they happen to be from affluent families? NOW what message does this communicate to their non-hand-raising peers? Issues of status can poison a classroom community.

This is a case of intent compared with impact, and the impact is negative.

Little moments like that happen all day, every day, in every classroom. Teachers have to make quick, in the moment decisions. Deborah Ball talked about this in her 2018 AERA (American Educational Research Association) Presidential Address, “Just Dreams and Imperatives: The Power of Teaching in the Struggle for Public Education.” (Her talk starts at 46:45. The linked video should start there.) Ball names these as “discretionary spaces,” and it’s often through these decisions made in discretionary spaces that racism, bias, and bigotry seep into even the most well intentioned and deliberately designed classrooms. We live in a society that is inherently filled with racism and oppression, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Heidi Fessenden wrote a beautiful post about examining discretionary spaces during a lesson in a fourth grade classroom.

Talk Moves & Intentionality

This morning, I met with some other math specialists in my district about productive talk and mathematical discourse. We have been reading Talk Moves (formerly titled Classroom Discussions in Math), by Suzanne Chapin, Catherine O’Connor and Nancy Canavan Anderson. We were naming some of the frameworks and strategies in the book, and started to discuss turn & talk, sometimes called think-pair-share.

I think I’ve seen turn & talks used in every single classroom in my district. In many classrooms, there are anchor charts about how to “buzz effectively,” and teachers spend time teaching this structure in the first few weeks of school. It’s a strength. In most classrooms, students seem to understand what is expected of them.

But then… when do we use turn and talks? What messages are we communicating? Are there discretionary spaces in which we could leverage the power of this structure?

In the past week or two, I’ve mostly seen classroom teachers use turn & talk when they are facing countless, eagerly waving, raised hands.

The teacher’s intent may have been to:

  • Acknowledge all of the enthusiastic participants, since only one (?) may be called on.
  • Give students a chance to talk with a peer.
  • Give students an opportunity to clarify their thinking before sharing. 
  • Give students an opportunity to hear someone else’s ideas, which may influence their own. 

The impact on students may include feelings of: 

  • Satisfaction that their idea is shared, even in a smaller setting
  • Connection with a peer (although emotions may be mixed here, depending on the relationships between the two students. I’ve seen eager students refuse to talk because they do not want to talk to their partner, specifically)

During the turn and talk, students may have clarified their thinking, had new ideas, or been influenced by their partner’s ideas, too. As long as the students were able to talk productively, this feeling like a winning situation. This move isn’t perfect, and it can be challenging to time, but the impact seems overwhelmingly positive.

So what other places in our day might we leverage the strength of the turn & talk? What if we return back to that original moment — “I only see 3 hands. Let’s get some new hands.”

Take 2. 

The classroom teacher is standing at the board, with her 25 students sitting on the rug in front of her. She’s asked several questions, and the same three students have been raising their hand.

Let’s start with the premise that students are sensemakers. They have something to share, even when they aren’t raising their hands or signally. Maybe their ideas are not polished, and, depending classroom climate, it can be difficult to share the rough draft thinking. Maybe they have emotions baggage around participating in the class. Maybe they are a racial minority, or maybe they do not feel confident speaking English in front of everyone, or maybe they are growing up in a LGBTQ+ home, or maybe they practice a different religion, or maybe they feel just different for any one of infinite reasons. 

The teacher pauses, then directs students to “turn and talk with your partner.”

I’ve done this. It does not always result in a classroom lit with the glow of everyone talking, but… maybe you’d be surprised how well it works, when it’s a question worth talking about. Students that I thought were disengaged will turn to their classmate (assigned or otherwise) and start talking — about the math! About their ideas! Clarifying them! Revising them! 

This is an added opportunity for a teacher to listen, and I’m all for giving us more opportunities to listen to students. Sometimes I’ll ask a pair of students if they’re willing to share when we come back together as a class, validating their mathematical ideas while simultaneously taking away that risk of raising a hand in front of everyone. I’m able to elevate their status. 

It’s a simple move, but, when done with intentionality and consideration for the students in front of you, I think it has the potential to cross boundaries and change status within the group. That’s what examining these discretionary spaces is all about: how does the legacy of racism and oppression sneak into our classroom? How can we invite marginalized students into the conversation? Or, as Deborah Ball asks: how do we disrupt the patterns that marginalize these students in the first place? 


Resources referenced:

  1. Deborah Ball’s 2018 AERA Presidential Address (YouTube)
  2. Heidi Fessenden’s blog post: “Discretionary Spaces in 4th Grade” (Jan. 29, 2019)
  3. Talk Moves (3rd edition), by Chapin, O’Connor and Anderson, published by Math Solutions




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