introverts are people too

In light of the Common Core state standards there has been a push to increase the speaking and listening skills of our students.  The argument being that being able to present information and engage in meaningful conversations is necessary to being college and career ready.  The push to build QPA’s in schools often includes a push to include some sort of presentation piece.  This I all agree with.  We do our students a disservice when we don’t expect them to participate meaningful in discussion; when we don’t force them to present their findings (if for no other reason than to expand their audience and gain more feedback.)

That being said, we have to be judicious in how we go about implementing these changes.  If we say that it is important that students are able to engage in discussions, then we have to hold them to three distinct criteria:

  1.  speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
  2. contributing meaningfully
  3. listening to one another by not speaking over each other, texting, having side conversations, etc.

This is where I am finding (based on talking to other teachers) we are tripping up.  In order to do this well, we have to lay these  expectations out clearly beforehand and then sticking to it.  In conversations as colleagues, we often have trouble with these criteria (how many times have you seen number 3 at a faculty meeting?)  This requires diligence and teaching and reteaching on our part; it doesn’t happen on its own.

More importantly, we need to be respectful of our introverted students.  In our zeal to promote speaking, we often gloss over these students and force them to speak.  Sitting on the sides of a discussion and listening is not a flaw.  In fact for many of our students, they are  gaining more from the discussion by listening and not stressing about when they will be speaking.

So how can we force these students to speak while respecting their introversion?  It’s rather simple.  Speaking and listening should be scaffolded just as we scaffold other skills.  I inform my students early on that they will all be expected to speak throughout the course, and then I remind them often of this expectation.  I then prime them for this, by offering them opportunities to share in smaller settings (think/pair/share or group work-groups are usually chosen by me).  On the first day that I truly expect everyone to speak, students must first write out a claim.  This way, if they are called on to speak and have nothing to add (as is often the case with introverted students), they can simply read their claim.  This limits their stress of thinking of what to say.  As the discussion comes to a close, if I realize that some people haven’t spoken yet, I simply call on them to speak.  I do this in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.  This teaches them that I will hold them to this expectation, and more importantly, that their opinion/thoughts matter and they can contribute it safely.

After the first discussion in which everyone is required to speak, students reflect on the discussion as a whole and their own participation.  From their reflections, I ask how to improve for next time, and I can increase my expectations from there.  For the record, this first discussion just happened today in one my classes-a full three weeks into the school year.  I built up to this moment throughout the previous weeks.

Expecting students to just get over it (whether you say that or not, that is the implication when students are forced up to speak too quickly) quite simply doesn’t work.  Instead, lay out expectations and build up to the main event.  It’s worth the extra effort.

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A simple way to introduce argument on day 1

The first day of school traditionally means handing out the syllabus and policies for each class and maybe doing some icebreakers.  It’s not usually until the 2nd day or so that we get around to teaching material.  I didn’t want to follow that pattern this year.  I was inspired by this blog post by Dave Stuart  to add argument to day 1.  (If you aren’t familiar with Dave Stuart, you should be.  I have gotten so many great ideas from his blog.)  This is especially vital for my seniors since the course is all about argumentative writing.

I began by projecting the school’s vision statement.  I asked the class to summarize it and then pull out the key words/phrases.  They of course were able to find the key phrases such as: critical knowledge, innovation, communicators, responsible and productive citizens etc.  I then proceeded to lead a discussion about what a vision statement is and how it should be a driving force in the institution both in classes and the greater community.  This was a rather informal discussion; kids who had things to say contributed, while others listened.

I then handed out a page with the key terms on it, and asked them to work with the person next to them to define each of those terms/phrases.  In other words, what does it really mean to “become thinkers”?  While it is very interesting to me to see how these define these terms as opposed to how the adults may define them (not necessarily the same way), I was more interested in getting them talking to a partner, and thinking deeply to define these terms.

Then I asked 2 simple questions of each pair: How well does the school actually do this? and How do English classes relate to this?  I got some very thoughtful answers from both traditionally good students as well as traditionally poor students.  But the main goal was to have them apply and synthesize information.   So far so good.

Their final task was to write 12-15 debatable claims regarding the vision.  Again, interesting to read from my perspective while also getting students used to the idea of writing debatable claims.  Eventually I asked them to share some of their claims (speaking and listening!  Boom!) at which point I could introduce and discuss ideas such as evidence, reasoning and counterclaims-all of which are going to play a vital part in the course.

I could then springboard the conversation about the vision statement into a conversation about their responsibilities as students and my responsibilities as their teacher which leads nicely into the syllabus and policies/expectations.

At the end of the 2 days (45 minute classes are just too short), I had students practicing writing and sharing claims.  They had some practice in speaking; they had some practice in evaluating and defining terms, and they got an idea of how the course fits into the bigger picture.  Overall, a successful way to begin the school year, I think.