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Taking attendance is usually a five-minute task at the start of a class period, but in my classroom, it can sometimes take much longer. On rare occasions, taking attendance can take up an entire class period.

This happened recently when, for 75 minutes, students listened respectfully to each other. No one snuck a peek at phone messages. No one left the room for a washroom break. Not a single student looked bored. There was no technology involved.

All I did was take attendance.

Stretching Our Minds

It's been decades since I stumbled upon the power of what I call the attendance question. I asked each student in my high school English class to tell me what he or she thought the color of silence was while I took attendance. The question was meant to get them thinking metaphorically just before a poetry lesson, but I was surprised to notice the students' interest in each other's responses. Curious about this, I began to use similar open-ended questions in other classes. In social studies, I asked what was wrong with the world. In psychology, I asked about students' favorite childhood toys. In math, I’d ask, "What is the color of 2?"

The most important characteristic of my attendance questions is that there are no "right" answers. In a setting where being right is critical for success, the attendance question is abnormal enough to get students' attention.

When we trace back the meaning of attend through Old French (atendre) to its Latin root (attendere), we can see that when we attend, we are "stretching our mind toward" something. The attendance question gets students to pay attention through inviting them to stretch their minds toward a question which has no right answer.

When we take attendance, we are essentially asking each student, "Are you here?" But are students actually present when their minds are elsewhere? By asking the attendance question, I am indirectly asking my students, "Who are you? How are you? What matters to you?" Through their consideration of a response, I hope they stretch their minds toward presence in the classroom.

Creating a Sense of "We"

The kind of attendance question that I ask will change over the course of the semester. At the beginning, the questions are safe and easy to answer, but toward the end of the semester, they might keep students talking long after the bell.

Questions at the beginning of the semester may be:

  • What's your favorite food/movie/book/celebrity/season?
  • What was the best part of the summer?
  • What was the most beautiful/interesting thing that you saw this morning on your way to school?
  • What's the taste of happiness/the shape of sadness/the smell of joy?

Questions like these help students to see similarities and differences among their classmates. They can begin to see a "we" in the classroom: we like pizza, we like summer, we're Vancouver Canucks fans. I love watching students who have never spoken to each other discover that they love the same things or that they see sadness in the same way.

Because learning is fundamentally a social and emotional experience, achieving this sense of we is critical before students fully engage in classroom activities. A sense of we creates safety and makes it more likely that a student will risk moving out of his or her comfort zone to try something new -- and ultimately to learn.

However, it's one thing for a teacher to know this and quite another to actually create a space where students feel safe and comfortable. Even with a plethora of how-to advice on creating community in a classroom, it can be difficult to know what will work best for any particular group of students. But whether the classroom is in Africa or Canada, taking attendance is what all teachers do everywhere, and it's through this simple act that any teacher anywhere can begin building community in his or her classroom.

The type of question that I ask is linked to how cohesive the classroom community is at the time. After those first "getting to know you" questions, I introduce this question: "How is the weather in your world?" If students are feeling stressed or tired, they may answer "stormy" or "cloudy." If they're in a good mood, it's "sunny" weather. Answers to this attendance question give me a sense of the general mood in the room, and I can then adjust my lesson in response. (Giving a test makes no sense when the general weather report includes storms with lightning and thunder!)

The attendance question that took up the entire 75 minutes recently was: "Have you ever had the experience of wishing you were the opposite gender in a particular situation?" Students will only answer this type of question authentically if they feel safe. That my students felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable in their answers was a result of months spent learning about each other through responses to attendance questions.

Recognizing What Matters

After decades of finding different ways of asking students, "Are you here?", I'm still learning about the impacts of the attendance question in my classroom. If I forget to ask one, students remind me. And if I post one on our work schedule and then don't ask it, I get lots of complaints.

If you'd like to try this in your classroom, here's an important caveat: Never directly link the attendance question to any curricular content. If you do, the question becomes a test of knowledge and not an invitation to stretch the mind. It wouldn't be an invitation to attend or be in attendance.

More often than not, I've finished taking attendance in the first five minutes of class. But on those days when that process becomes much longer, it’s always worth the extra time getting to know who my students are and what matters to them.

How do you build community in your classroom?

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Establishing a Positive Community
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Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

Thank you for the question! I'd been worrying that I hadn't given enough details about what I do so I'm grateful for this opportunity.

There is only one question each time so all students answer the same question. The whole point is to reveal the uniqueness of each view of the world and to see the diversity and commonality in those views.

At the beginning of the year I don't spend a lot of time explaining what attendance questions are, I just announce that we do them. Toward the end of the semester/school year, I include them in our work schedule so that students can spend time thinking about responses before I ask them. This is when I get into trouble if I don't ask them!

This is what I say:

We do attendance questions in this class. The great thing about them is that there are no right answers - whatever answer you give is the right one. Today's attendance question is: What is the shape of sadness? For me the shape of sadness is prickly. Now as I call out your name, tell me what you think the shape of sadness is. (End of what I say.)

It's important not to show any negative criticism or judgement about anyone's answers. This is critically important. Receive all responses like you would a gift. Be curious, be appreciative but never be critical.

Is this enough? Please ask more questions !

(1)
Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

I hope it's clear that I ALWAYS answer the question first as the first person "in attendance"....

Linda Huebner's picture

Yes that is very helpful. The only thing I don't understand is feedback after the kids respond. I don't want them to feel that their answer had no worth. Also, I think I would phrase that there are no wrong answers because what they say is a right answer. That was confusing. It may just be a culture concept.

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

You're right. "There are no wrong answers" is clearer. I say that as well but didn't write that in the article.
Also, depending on the day, we have an extended discussion on the question. Sometimes it's after I give my answer, I explain why I think, for example, that sadness has a prickly shape.

LBteach's picture

Thank you Lizanne for sharing this strategy to enhance a positive learning community classroom. I am an advocate for the power of creating learning community classrooms built upon mutual respect and trust. I work diligently to embed the propensities of learning community members into my practice and instill the value of social emotional development with my undergraduate/graduate students in teacher preparation. I am excited to add this strategy into my weekly class meetings. I am curious to see the implications of this strategy and how my students perceive this as a valuable tool into embracing not only a hands-on, but minds-on approach to 'taking attendance'.

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

Thank you for your comment.
I'm curious to know how student-teachers would respond to questions about the texture of anticipation for example. I wonder if the responses would be significantly different to those of my teen students.

Amie Reid's picture

Thanks for this idea! I've shared your wonderful strategy with other teachers and would like to implement it in my grade 8 class this year. I agree that the sequencing of questions should be gradual and purposeful, with the more abstract coming later in the year. I was wondering if you have a more extensive list than the few examples you gave? Thanks!

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

I love doing this with Grade 8's! One tip is to look at the kinds of quizzes there are in teen magazines, you'll get loads of ideas. Other than that, more examples:
Favourite colour for clothing or for shoes or for cars
Favourite way to spend a Sunday or a Friday
Favourite time of day
Favourite season of the year
Favourite food with friends or for celebrations
Sound that makes you happy
Sound that makes you sad
Best birthday present or birthday celebration
Furthest you have travelled
What superpower would you like to have
Would you rather be invisible or be as strong as superman?

Also, I've just recently discovered Table Topics and am just now experimenting with how to use them other than for attendance:

http://www.tabletopics.com/

NJ Charb's picture

I really appreciated this concrete, thoughtful plan to encourage social emotional health in the classroom--except for: "But whether the classroom is in Africa or Canada." It just makes me sad when the diverse, individual countries in the continent of Africa get clumped together as if they are one country. Otherwise, the article shares a good idea.

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

Yes, I know what you mean. I was born in South Africa and taught in schools there before I came to Canada. Try explaining to someone that South Africa is a country and not a geographic designation!

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