Quiet Signals and Timers
One of the keys to good cooperative learning is good classroom management. If you feel this is a weak area for you, don't worry. As a part of your cooperative learning explorations, you can learn many management strategies that will help you all day long. The most important strategy of all is a good quiet signal. Perhaps "quiet signal" isn't the best term because you are not trying to make them get quiet and remain quiet. What I'm referring to is a signal to get your students' attention so you can give them additional directions. The best quiet signals are quick, easy, and effective. Your quiet signal has to be something that you can use over and over all day long, and something to which you will train your students to respond immediately. Try out a few different ones, and then choose one that you can stick with.
You can also use timers as quiet signals when your students are involved in activities that can be broken down into timed segments. You'll find some suggestions at the bottom of this page.
Qualities of a Good Quiet Signal
- Students can SEE it from anywhere in the room.
- Students can HEAR it when they are interacting in teams.
- It's not overly annoying when used 15 times in one day!
- Room should be quiet within 3 to 5 seconds. If it takes longer, it's not working.
Favorite Quiet Signals
Chimes - Tapping a tune on a set of chimes (pictured on the right). There's something soothing about the sound of chimes, and yet it commands attention!
Hand Up and Count -Teacher holds up one hand and slowly counts to 3. Students look at teacher, hold up one hand, and put finger to lips to signal others. Room must be quiet by the count of 3.
Clapping Patterns - Teacher claps 2 times slowly. Students respond by clapping 3 times quickly (which means they have to stop working and put things down that they are holding.)
Rain Stick - Teacher holds up rain stick and shakes it. Students hold up one hand to signal others. Room must be quiet by the time the stones in the rain stick fall to the bottom.
Other Quiet Signals:
- Tap on wind chimes or xylophone. Students raise hand to signal others to get quiet.
- Wind up music box at the beginning of the week. Open lid and lets it play until room is quiet. By doing this repeatedly throughout the week, the music box winds down. If there is any music left at the end of the week, students earn 15 minutes free time.
- Hold up a giant Mickey Mouse hand. Students raise hand to signal others.
- Ring a bell 3 times. Students look at teacher for instructions.
Teaching Your Quiet Signal
Most people don't realize that it's important to actively teach your students your quiet signal. Telling isn't teaching! As soon as you put them in teams, tell them that since you are going to allow them to talk during cooperative activities, you need to be able to get their attention immediately. Explain your quiet signal and tell them that you are going to time them the first few times. Let them know that you expect them to be quiet and ready for instructions within 3 to 5 seconds. Have them put their heads together and talk over something like what their favorite food is. After a few moments, use the quiet signal and start watching the clock from the moment you give it. Wait until the room is absolutely quiet and then record the amount of time it took. If it was more than 5 seconds, tell them that they will have to do better. Give them another discussion topic and try again. Usually they will do much better the next time. Keep working on it until they have mastered it.
Using Timers as Quiet Signals
Using a timer can be an effective quiet signal because it allows students to see how much time is left before they need to stop working and give you their attention. For example, instead of asking your students to work on a science activity for an unspecified amount of time, you can say, "Class, you have 5 minutes to brainstorm ideas for your wind-powered car." Then record the starting and stopping times on the board and use the classroom clock to time the activity. Or you can use one of the fun options below that make use of new technologies.
- Online Timers - If you have an interactive white board in your classroom, or even a desktop computer, online timers make great quiet signals. You can program in the timer to count up or count down, depending on the task you want to time. One of my favorite free websites is Online Stopwatch at www.online-stopwatch.com. They have some amazing and extremely creative timers on their website, but after you explore them, you may want to use the basic timer for most everyday tasks. The bomb and rocket timers are fun to use with games, but can also be potentially distracting to students who are working.
- Smartphone Timers - Many teachers have told me that they use the built-in timer on their Smartphone as a count down or count up timer. The obvious problem with using this strategy is that you have to have your phone on and you may receive calls or text messages during instructional time which is a no-no in most schools.
- Time Tracker - For many years, I used a Time Tracker like the one shown here to track time and alert students when we needed to switch to another activity. The Time Tracker starts out with the green area lit up, then switches to a yellow warning light, and finally the red area lights up when the time runs out. You can program different amounts of time for each section, and you can even program it to say "Time's Up!" at the end. It worked really well for guided reading and math groups. It's a little tricky to learn to program, but after you figure out how to enter each time, you'll love it. Just don't throw away the directions!
Frequently Asked Questions
- Do I have to use a Quiet Signal? I have never used one before. I just wait for my students to get quiet. Eventually they all get quiet and I give my directions.
A quiet signal is critical to keep from wasting time and to keep the momentum going during cooperative activities. Suppose that you need to give a quiet signal 5 times each hour and it takes 1 minute to get your class quiet each time. That's 5 minutes of wasted time each hour, or 30 minutes of wasted time each day. If you multiply that by 180 school days, you end up wasting 90 hours of time (or 15 whole days!) just with waiting for the class to get quiet!
- What should I do if I teach middle school (or high school or college)? I just don't think older kids will respond to a quiet signal. They will feel that it's babyish.
You might have to get a bit creative to find just the right quiet signal, but it will work for older kids too. Of course you wouldn't expect them to put their fingers to their lips like first graders! I've seen middle school teachers get very silly with their quiet signal (a huge Mickey Mouse hand), and the kids just thought it was cool! I know of one high school chemistry teacher who discovered that glass beakers make a nice ringing sound. He set up a few in different sizes and tapped on them in a special way. Another middle school teacher introduced me to the idea of the using a rain stick and shaking it. Find something that makes a little noise, and make it work for you! You could also explain to your students why you need a signal and let them help you devise one. Your other option is to use some of the cool online countdown timers described above.