Monday, November 25, 2013

The Power of Popsicle Sticks!

It's Deb back with you today...

What's the last professional book that you read that truly impacted your students’ experiences in your classroom?  The answer to that question for me is Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.
Not a cover that really grabs you and shouts “READ ME!”, huh?  When I found it in my school mailbox, I was quite tempted to set it aside.  However, we had a new ESL director at the time, and she was the one who had sent it to me to read.  I must admit, I wanted to set a favorable impression with her, so I decided that I should at least take the book home over the weekend and skim it...enough to be able to comment on a few topics.  Besides that, in her original email about this book, she had really sung its praises. Was it really all that?

So, home it went with me that Friday afternoon.  Saturday morning, I stepped onto my elliptical machine and balanced the book on the stand so that I could "multitask" while reading.  Wow, was I ever in for a shock!  This book really resonated with me.  I actually couldn’t put it down!  In fact, I finished the book by the end of the weekend! (Keep in mind that I had a 7-year-old and 4-year-old at the time, so stealing time to read at that point in my life was a daunting task…. Who am I kidding?!  It still is!)

In Chapter 3, Wiliam describes a classroom where a handful of dedicated students constantly raise their hands and contribute to the discussion, while the remainder of students in the classroom doodle, daydream, or "fly under the radar". The ultra-engaged students perform extremely well in school, as one would expect.  They are discussing the topic and interacting with the learning materials. Unfortunately, the performance of the disengaged students is suffering, as one would expect. Furthermore, the achievement gap is widening in this type of classroom.

While reading, I found myself thinking about the upper elementary classrooms in which I co-taught.  I had a strong hunch that the low engagement levels Wiliam described was nearly identical to what would be observed in the classrooms I taught in every day.  When I returned to school that Monday, my hunch was 100% verified.  A handful of students constantly raised their hands, while the other students either sat quietly or very obviously “spaced out”.

The very next day, my co-teachers allowed me to put some of Wiliam’s engagement strategies into action, and we noticed a remarkable difference immediately.  Allow me to share a couple of these strategies with you today! Below I describe the #1 change we made that seemed to significantly improve student engagement during lessons.

#1- The Power of the Popsicle Sticks!!

I bet many of you are saying to yourselves, “I have a cup like this in my classroom already!” Of the four classrooms I co-taught in that year, three of them already had a cup of Popsicle sticks with one student’s name printed on each stick.  However, we either weren’t using them correctly or we weren't using them with enough frequency.

We started using the cup CONSTANTLY.  (I’m serious…. We even instituted a “no-hands-in-the-air” policy.  Students didn’t need to bother raising their hands; we drew Popsicle sticks instead of calling on students raising their hand.)  Whenever we asked a question, we would provide wait time (often giving students a chance to talk to a partner), and then draw a Popsicle stick and announce the name. That student was then charged with answering the question.

I admit, I got a kick out of picking up the cup full of sticks at the beginning of a lesson and giving it a little rattle.  Kids would immediately sit up and look around.  It was a nonverbal way of saying “Pay attention…. your name may be called on to answer a question.”

Yes, the “pass” reply was still an option, but if a student passed, the question would eventually be bounced back to them and they would be asked to repeat the correct answer that another student had just given.

One fifth grade teacher I worked with eventually created two cups of popsicle sticks.  She kept one on her desk, and one on the other side of the room.  With that, at least one of the cups could easily be spotted and picked up at any given time.

Have you implemented Popsicle sticks to increase student engagement?  I'd love to hear your comments on their effectiveness in your classroom!

Are you interested in learning about another strategy?  I've posted another one at my blog today, and it includes a FREEBIE.  I invite you to stop by!  I will also blog about this more in the future.


  1. I LOVE popsicle sticks and use them every day. They are such a great way to make every student accountable for what we are doing in class. I know that I notice the same few kids more frequently and tend to call on them more, so drawing names makes sure that I get those kids who are typically quiet.

    Fifth in the Middle

  2. I completely agree, Diane! I find that the sticks hold me accountable, as well! All too often, I feel like we are short on time and it would just be easier to call on the kids who raise their hands. However, the popsicle sticks hold ME accountable to assess every student's understanding... not just a few. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hey Deb, I think I am going to have to read this book...Sounds like a winner. I do pick stick on my iphone and if a student is drawn and doesn't have the answer, they can phone a friend...However, the friend cannot answer the question for them. The friend can tell the student the answer or explain it, but the student whose name was drawn is responsible for answering the question. This, for me, holds every single student accountable for their learning. Thanks for the post!!

  4. What a great idea, Tobi! Thank you!!!

  5. A cool free tech tool that can substitute for the Popsicle sticks is Class Dojo where you can press the "random" button to choose a student. It also tracks your data so you know the frequency and if the student was ready to answer or not. Lots of other positive benefits to Dojo, you can read about it on my blog:


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