Cold Calling: Options for Randomly Selecting Students in the Classroom

What is cold calling?

So, when you visit a classroom, usually the following situation plays out: the teacher asks a question and the students raise their hand and wait to be called on to answer. That's the traditional model of how classrooms work.

Cold calling is different, though. Cold calling is when you call on students regardless of whether or not they are raising their hands. Sometimes the teacher may specifically call on a certain student who she hasn't heard from in a while, or the teacher may choose a method to randomly select a student to answer. In a class where cold calling is used often, you may never see students raise hands to answer a question because they're so used to being randomly called on. Of course, kids may raise their hands for other reasons, but not that.

Why doesn't everyone cold call?

I use cold calling in my classroom. Some teachers who visit are not super excited about it. When I've talked to them about it, I usually hear stories about an uncomfortable experience they had when they were younger when they were called on without warning. Then they say that clearly cold calling isn't good for all students because it wasn't good for them. Just because it takes someone out of their comfort zone, does not mean that cold calling is bad.

Really though, if a teacher really understands how to use cold calling in their classroom, the students shouldn't feel uncomfortable. I mean, maybe for the first few days when they're just getting used to it they would, but eventually it becomes routine. Just like any new thing you introduce to your class. A teacher who uses cold calling the right way knows how to alleviate the discomfort for even the most shy of students.

What are some benefits?

The biggest benefit is that you get to hear from all of your students. No more having a handful of students dominate all the conversations. Once your students know that this is how answering questions is going to work in your classroom, they accept that they're going to need to participate. It also raises the expectations for all students. It helps keep your expectations high. The students know they need to be paying attention because they may be called on at any time. Another benefit is that you're able to get a little more formative data on students who may not normally hear from.

How does it work? (tips + strategies)

First off, let me say that I don't do this all day long. That would be maddening. There are times that we do turn and talks and I hear a specific group give a great answer. I want to hear from them. I'm not going to leave it up to chance. There are times during the day that a kiddo is really excited to share an answer that they came up with. I'm fine calling on them. There are times when that one kid raises his hand - you know the one who never raises his hand. I could be in the middle of randomly selecting kids and I'd still stop and let him share his answer! There's a place for cold calling and below are some tips that I'd suggest using to help make it successful for both you and the students.

  • Use a tool to help decide who to call on. I've included a list of different options below. I've started using calling cards this year, and I absolutely love them!
  • Do turn & talks more often. This helps ease some of that anxiety for your shy students and helps them prep to give an answer in case you call on them.
  • Make students share an answer if called on. Have a system in place for what happens if a student doesn't know the answer. In my classroom, I tell them I'm going to call on a few more kids and then come back to them. I also reassure my students that they're able to repeat the same answer as someone else if need be.
  • When needed and if possible, let certain students know in advance that they are going to be called on soon. This can also help ease nerves.

What are some tools I can use when cold calling on students?

Photo cred: The First Grade Parade

Popsicle Sticks

If you haven't heard of using popsicle sticks to call on students, you may be a new teacher. Most teachers use these. It's cheap. They're quick to use. I'm not going to talk about them a lot. I used to use them until I found other alternatives that I like better. Nothing wrong with them, though, if it's what you want to use.


I learned about these at a conference over the summer during a workshop with Rick Morrison. This is what I currently use. They are amazing! If you're interested in using them, you can use index cards or you can use these cute cards that you can customize with your kiddos' names. They work the same as popsicle sticks, but they're a bit more compact. Because of that, it's easier to have multiple sets for different subjects. You can also write notes on them about the student you called on to keep track of a little formative data.

Another thing that I really like about them is that it's easy to keep track of which student is coming up next or after that. You can kind of fan the cards out for a preview of what's to come which helps you ease those more nervous students' minds.

Class Dojo

I don't know if you use Class Dojo in your room, but if you don't, you should definitely check it out! Class Dojo has a random button which allows you to randomly select a student in your class. It also has an attendance feature so that no absent students are ever selected. Pretty convenient. I use this if I'm trying to pick a volunteer more so, but every so often, I'll use it for cold calling.

iPad app

My personal favorite iPad app for cold calling is Decide Now. I originally found it when I was trying to recreate the Riff-Off wheel from Pitch Perfect. Luckily! After spending a few minutes playing with it, I realized that it could be super useful in the classroom, too! There are tons of apps, though, for making random selections. Do you have any favorites you'd like to share?

Ready to start cold calling? Let me know in the comments below!

Tips for Getting Funded Through Donors Choose

Have you heard of Donors Choose? Maybe you've had a few projects funded already or maybe you're just getting started. Either way, here are some tips to help you experience success in getting your classroom project funded.

Who am I?

In case you're just tuning in, I'm Kristin. I'm the teacher behind Teaching In A Nutshell. I've been a Donors Choose teacher since 2011. My mom mentioned it to me my first year of teaching when I was complaining that I didn't have resources for my classroom. I jumped on board and got my first project funded quickly. That year, I had three projects fund total. During my time on Donors Choose, I've had 19 projects fund in all. 

Due to my love of Donors Choose, I founded the Send A Smile Giving Page in the summer of 2013. My lovely co-admin joined on shortly after and has been amazing this past year as I've stepped back a bit while pregnant. As admins of a giving page, we are able to support tons of teachers with projects on Donors Choose and hear tips from those same teachers about what has worked for them. Now, I'm sharing those tips with you.

What is Donors Choose?

Donors Choose is a website that allows you to post projects where you request resources, visitors, or trips for your classroom. These projects are then crowdfunded by donors. Your project may receive donations from friends and family, student families, people from your community, or even random donors throughout the world. This website has helped countless students receive materials and experiences that they would may not have had otherwise. It allows teachers to get materials for their classroom without breaking the bank - or maybe it just frees up your money to purchase other things for the classroom ... like jewelry and shoes.

Below is additional information that I have learned from my own experience as well as the experiences of others during my time on Donors Choose. I hope these tips are helpful to you!

Increasing Student Participation During Classroom Discussions

So, you may be asking - "What in the heck does a PB&J sandwich have to do with student participation?" As I write this, I can only imagine the questions that may be running through your head... partially because they're running through my head even though I chose the image!

Are we feeding the kids?
Isn't peanut butter banned in lots of schools?
Did you just pick a random picture?

Truly, there is a reason I picked this image! You see - an excellent strategy to help increase student participation during classroom discussions is Turn & Talk or, as my students call it, Peanut Butter and Jelly Partners.

What are Peanut Butter & Jelly Partners?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Partners are just another name for Turn & Talk partners or Elbow partners. You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to. One in the same. So, why this crazy name for them? Because the kids think it's hilarious! What is more fun - having your teacher say, "Now, turn and talk to your elbow partner" or "Peanut butter, talk to Jelly?"

Why call it something different?

Aside from the name just being fun for the kids, there are some other fun benefits to using the terms Peanut Butter and Jelly partners.


The Turn & Talk strategy are beneficial in classroom discussions. It allows students to process and work through their answer before sharing out with the class. For students who are below-level or shy, it gives them the opportunity to hear an answer from a friend before being called on. Labeling students as peanut butter or jelly allows you to differentiate your classroom discussions. Depending on the question you are asking, you can ask peanut butter or jelly to talk first. This may allow your more advanced partners to provide scaffolding to your on-level and below-level students before you discuss the question as a class. 

Various Groupings

Having special names for your partners not only allows you to differentiate, it also allows you an easy way to give students multiple partners. Rather than only having an elbow buddy, you can have a Peanut Butter & Jelly partner and a Mashed Potatoes & Gravy partner or a Cookies & Milk partner. The kids are great at remembering which partner they are because it's so fun and silly. Of course, you can still provide visual reminders for students if needed, but many times they are not needed.

Other Ways to Group Students

My students are very intentionally partnered based on ability, as well as personality. I try to match above with below level learners and Chatty Cathys with Quiet Quints. It takes a lot of thought. However, you can also match your students based on where they sit, by letting them select their own partner, or randomly. You can even do a combination by selecting different names for different types of partners.

Oh no! I have an ODD number of students!

That's what I said when I started this. For some reason, it didn't really hit me that this was a problem until I was assigning the students their partners. Luckily, teachers are good at thinking on their feet! See that picture up at the top? Notice the chips? Yep, that's partner number three!

When I told my oddball student that, he was so excited that he got to be the chips, a super special position just for him. He was, however, confused when it was his turn. You see, every time I asked a question, I always said that peanut butter or jelly went first.

What about the chips?

Once again, I was able to quickly swoop in with a solution. Little known fact - I like to crush up chips and put them in the middle of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Does anyone else do that? It's a textural thing for me. Really, that doesn't matter, though. The point is, it gave me a perfect solution for our little dilemma. "The chips always go in the middle," I told him as I explained how I liked to eat my sandwiches. And that was that, no further explanation needed and no complaints! Well, except when I forgot to say "Turn and tell peanut butter - and chips - what you think!"

Ready to try it out on your class?

Go for it! It is amazing how much fun discussions become for the students using this system, and it makes it easy to organize your Turn & Talk times. Check out this Peanut Butter and Jelly Partner resource to help implement it in your room!

Organize your Turn & Talk times with Peanut Butter and Jelly Partners! This method makes it exciting to share with peers and helps teachers organize Turn & Talk times making them even more effective and productive. Click for more information on how to implement in your classroom!