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:
- speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
- contributing meaningfully
- 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.