Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Classroom Discourse - the quiet ones

Of the six sixth grade classes I teach, only one has been consistently quiet and unenthusiastic.  This came as a shock to me, at first, because I've taught many of the students-in-question before, when they'd been anything but quiet.  Yet, that was the way of things for a few weeks.  This week, though, I think (and hope) I've gotten them past their stoic tendencies.

Since there are a few students I would describe as naturally shy mixed into the group, this didn't concern me for our first few weeks together.  I thought they just needed time to get used to each other... most of them were already used to me.  As time went on, it became clear that something else was preventing them from speaking openly.  On more than one occasion, I noticed normally talkative students open their mouth to respond or get that "I've got it!" light-bulb-above-the-head look on their face, only to restrain themselves from volunteering an answer.  I think the factor holding them back was their homeroom teacher.

Their homeroom teacher usually sits in class at a desk off to the side, doing some busy work.  He never gets involved in the class when I'm teaching or interacts in any way.  I've noticed, though, that he runs his class very strictly and is more demanding of his students' attention and obedience than the other homeroom teachers.  He does it in a friendly way, to be sure, but I don't think he tolerates distractions, either during his class or even their break-times.  His students are often late to classes in other classrooms because, I've recently realized, he has got them sitting at their desks and hasn't finished speaking to/directing them until a few minutes after the class bell has rung.  So I needed to get a message to my students that, even though he's present in the class, his rules are not my rules and only my rules apply during my class-time.. and it needed to be done without being disrespectful or stepping on toes if possible.

So when we met yesterday, I started class by asking my students what some common class rules were in other classes.  One of the first things they said was, "don't speak".  I stopped them right there and told them that's not my rule.  My rule is "speak".  I had them repeat "speak" with me, which made some of them laugh since their English ability, on the whole, is quite advanced.  I asked them to say it again, even louder.  I told them that my class is all about speaking and that I would never get upset at them for speaking unless they were interrupting someone else's speech.  I ended by saying English class is not like other classes and that the whole point was to speak to each other.

To reinforce the idea, I told a very quick story about an awesome restaurant I ate at on Tuesday.  A few students offered up their reactions/opinions about that and I opened the floor to another student who told me about a similar restaurant that he went to on Sunday in Banpo.  A few of the other kids knew about that place and one of them told me his dad loves it because they serve free, all-you-can-drink beer lol.  Some Italian place, I can't remember it's name now.  Sophia's?

I have told them stories before, trying to have a conversation to start class (the stories are usually related to the topic of study) and get them talking, but it was a lot more effective yesterday.  I wasn't sure whether addressing how quiet they were directly would bring them out or force them further into their shells, but it seemed to have worked.  I tried to focus more on the rules of behavior in school than the fact that their behavior was unsatisfactory to me, which I think avoided causing shame or guilt.

I also changed their groups.  Before, I had decided to spread out the most shy students among the teams equally.  This time, I put them all on the same team, hoping that the other teams' enthusiasm would naturally infect the whole class.  The second approach seems to be working better than the first.  If the classroom dynamic appears to have made a positive and permanent shift after a few more classes, I'll redistribute the most shy students among the others again, but the 'shy group' is actually doing quite well.  They seem to get along well and, though no-one wants to be the one to actually speak the answers, they contributed quite regularly during class yesterday.  They seem to have worked out some system for spreading out the burden of speech equally among themselves.  Doing my job for me?  Yes please ;)

Overall, more students were offering more frequent and complex contributions.  Their speech wasn't so unnatural, stunted, or awkward as it had been.  I heard lengthy opinions from several students who hadn't really spoken much before in response to the open-discourse questions.  They seemed to be more comfortable in class and I assure you that I was more comfortable as well!

I'm not sure if this behavior will stick.. I don't actually get to see this class again until May 2nd since they're going on a field-trip next week :(   Hoping for the best!


  1. That's a nice post, Nate. "Speak" is a really creative solution to your problem.

  2. Very thoughtful and holistic coping strategies you're working with. And yes, when you get it right, this is the easiest AND most satisfying job in the world!