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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. I get a better response from students when I allow them to share in a small group first. I think this takes the pressure off to have the best and perfect answer. After sharing in a group, students often feel more confident in their own answers.

  2. I like to put the kids in groups and compete in games with each other. The students enjoy playing battleship the most. Before they make a move, they have to solve a problem. Their partner has to solve to make sure they got the answer correct. Once it’s correct, they get to make their move. After everyone is finished, we talk about any problems or concerns they had.

  3. I use Ticket out the door slips/post its & put them on door so I make sure everyone is accountible. I have just began using Smart responders. I like them a lot. Smart also has an ipad app like the responders for those lucky folks. It is hard for the younger grades to get 1s to turn 2s & share their answers, so I can’t wait to read this book to pick up new tips for informal assessment.

  4. Here are some of the ways I spark participation in my classroom:
    – have the students use the microphone/classroom audio system
    – get out my video camera and “make it a production”
    – tell the kids that I need them to play the teacher and they can pose questions and lead discussions
    – give extra points/punches on their reward cards

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