All eyes are fastened on teacher Mary McKnight-Brown. It is quiet in the first-grade classroom at Dasher Green Elementary.
But when she moves her hand slightly, 24 first-graders suddenly erupt into fierce whispering. As she makes another signal, the children become quiet, eager to share answers.
One doesn't hear many verbal reprimands from Ms. McKnight-Brown, who will be featured next month on a national program about innovative teaching.
Instead of commanding her students to "sit down," or "be quiet," the Columbia teacher uses hand signals to communicate. A raised fist means "think" before answering a question. Two crossed fingers tell students to "pair up" and find the answer to a question. An open palm means "share" the answer with the whole class.
"People say it looks like I'm flagging down a small airplane," she says with a laugh.
The technique, "Think, Pair, Share," is meant to develop students' thinking skills and encourage shy youngsters to take risks, Ms. McKnight-Brown says.
"It's not just a few extroverts being the information-getters and givers," she says. "It gives everybody a chance to speak."
The Howard County teacher will be profiled Nov. 1 on "Teacher TV," a weekly half-hour series focusing on education trends, classroom techniques and practical tips and strategies for teachers. The cable television program can be seen by viewers who receive The Learning Channel.
Ms. McKnight-Brown's former student teacher supervisor, Frank Lyman, suggested her to one of the program's producers.
Principal John Vermette said Ms. McKnight-Brown is one of the most effective first-grade teachers he has worked with in his 24 years in education.
"She's truly outstanding," Mr. Vermette said. "She brings the qualities of talent, dedication and the true spirit of being an effective teacher to the classroom."
Ms. McKnight-Brown said she learned the technique as a student teacher seven years ago. The technique gives her greater classroom control and enables her to evaluate the thoughts of an entire class at one glance, she said.
"Sometimes I want to keep a discussion going," Ms. McKnight-Brown said. "I can just take a quick look around. It gives me a chance to see how different people are thinking."
It also leads to impromptu lesson changes.
For example, students can tell Ms. McKnight-Brown that they're familiar with a story by placing their fingers on their noses. If a lot of students know the story, she presents it in a different way.
"Their signals help me know where to go next," Ms. McKnight-Brown says.
Most important, Ms. McKnight-Brown uses the method to encourage risk-taking. For example, by simultaneously raising their hands and crossing their arms over their chests, students can communicate that they have an opinion but don't wish to verbalize it.
"Kids want you to notice they're having thoughts," she says.
The method also validates students' thoughts without the approval of an authority figure, she says. "It gives them a chance to realize that what they're thinking is real," Ms. McKnight-Brown says.
She also uses hand signals to gauge opinions. For example, there are signals to express agreement, disagreement and ambivalence.
"We're promoting risk-taking and opinions that lead us to answers," she says.