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Uncategorized   |   Apr 6, 2012

Total Participation Techniques (book review)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Total Participation Techniques (book review)

By Angela Watson


At last month’s ASCD conference, I had the pleasure of speaking with William and Persida Himmele, the husband and wife team who wrote the wonderful new book Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner. I can’t say enough good things about how useful and practical this book is, and I’m excited to share it with you.

I asked the Himmeles what they think the big take-away for teachers should be when they read this book. Persida explained that the goal is not just getting all students to participate in lessons, but getting them to participate in ways that are meaningful, authentic, and involve higher order thinking.

Often, teachers are tempted to settle for less. Sometimes the issue is misplaced empathy, a concept the Himmeles explore more fully in their first book, The Language-Rich Classroom: A Research-Based Framework for Teaching English Language Learners. As educators, we tend to let students (especially English language learners and kids with special needs) get away with one word responses and don’t press them to move into the realm of critical thinking.

Oh, how I have been guilty of that! I’ll call on a struggling student who tells me the basic answer and then ask a higher achieving child to explain why it’s the correct answer so that I don’t embarrass the struggling student or put him or her on the spot. Persida explains that this is a bias discrimination you can see: teachers have good intentions, and misplaced empathy looks nice, but it does a huge disservice to struggling kids. A big cause of the achievement gap is that so many kids are allowed to linger in quadrant one of the figure below. Persida urges us to be tenacious and decide we’re not going to allow students not to learn. We have to challenge our students and convey an attitude  of “I am not going to let you fail or stay where you’re at right now.”

The Himmeles shared a story about their daughter, who once came home from school and said she was bad at math. Instead of telling her, “Oh, honey, that’s okay, you’re good at other things,” they said to her, “Okay, so get good at it!” They persisted through the struggle with her and she’s now at the 95th percentile in math. William explains that kids get it in their heads that they’re not going to get master a skill or subject area because they’re not smart. “Smartness doesn’t impress me,” he says. The person who is going to do well is the person who is using the right strategy at the right time. He cautions teachers not to tell kids they are smart, and instead ask, “What did you do to figure it out? What strategies did you use?” and build from that point.

The Himmeles wanted to be very clear: they’re not blaming teachers. They understand that the system of school does not support teachers in pursuing higher-level thinking and total participation in the classroom. Persida talked about how NCLB measures without providing supports and pathways. The testing pressure takes away time for kids to process information. And as educators, we often have no choice but to keep kids stuck in lower level thinking and minimal involvement because we have to hurry. The Himmele’s book works from the assumption that we have to trust the teachers and the kids.

This grid sums up the basic principle of the book: Many of our classroom activities leave kids stuck in quadrant 1: lower order, low participation. The ideas in the book make it simple for teachers to move kids to quadrant 4 (higher order, high participation) during more classroom activities.
This grid sums up the basic principle of the book: Many of our classroom activities leave kids stuck in quadrant 1: lower order, low participation. The ideas in the book make it simple for teachers to move kids to quadrant 4 (higher order, high participation) during more classroom activities.

And that’s the beauty of this book: it clearly explains 37 different classroom-ready techniques teachers can use to teach the curriculum they’re required to teach, but in ways that get kids actively involved on a deeper level than just a class discussion. Some of the ideas require advance planning and others which can be done on the spur of the moment once they’ve been added to your teaching repetoire.

They suggest creating a Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) folder for each child to keep in their desks so the techniques can be used any time. The materials can be laminated and re-used from year to year. Some of the items include a laminated piece of consutrction paper (to use as an individual whiteboard), true/not true hold up cards, number cards, a processing card to show where students are in their thinking (shown on the book cover), and guided note-taking templates.

William explained that Total Participation Techniques help with classroom management because kids are allowed to talk and move around. It also enhances the sense of community, which is the foundation for a well-run classroom. If you have the same 5 kids answering questions over and over, using TPTs will get the other students used to interacting and working collaboratively and get your entire class more actively involved in their learning. I love this quote from page 109 of the book: “The best thing about implementing TPTs is that teaching is no longer a guessing game as to who is experiencing growth. With TPTs, you get to observe growth as it happens. You get to celebrate learning right alongside your students.”


Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Allowing students enough time to think of an answer, without some students becoming discipline problems due to the slower pace is a problem for me. You have the kids who have their hand up before they even have an answer, and the kids who will never raise a hand. I would love some new ideas of how to get everyone involved!

  2. It’s frustrating when you always have the same kids raise their hand. I would love to get more students to participate, but I also know that some students are just shy to speak in front of their classmates. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I see the same thing with adults. I sometimes, allow students to do a think-pair-share to get involved. That way they are participating, but within the safety of just a small group. I would love more ideas of how to get all students involved that doesn’t create discomfort. Thanks!

  3. To get students to actively participate I have students answer questions on personal white boards. Sometimes they hold the answer in the air, sometimes I have them leave the answer flat on the desk for me to come around and check. If they get the answer wrong I often have them try again rather than giving them the answer the first time.

  4. To get as much participation as possible I use Think-Pair-Share, dry erase boards, wait time, popsicle sticks with student names on them, and activotes. I’ve been a math coach for the past two years but will be going back into the classroom next year. I plan on doing more with formative assessment pieces like entrance and exit slips. I struggle with the lethargic student who puts his/her head on their desk and refuses to participate and also students who say they can’t work with others. I’m always looking for new ideas.

  5. I teach 3rd grade and I also use Think-Pair-Share. I find that students are more willing to share with a large group after having done so with a small one. During discussions, I also encourage the kids to respond to each other and not just to me, using language like, “I agree with Ben because…” or “I disagree because…”. They learn that they can all have different thoughts and opinions and share them respectfully. I encourage the shy kids as well. Even if they just make a comment like, “I thought Amy had a good idea.” at least they are participating. When they see that others respond positively or agree with them, it builds their confidence. I would love to learn some fresh new ideas though.

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