Reaching the Quiet Kids in Class

Jul 13, 2019

As a student, my mindset was that everything needed to be perfect; anything less was unacceptable. Taking the risk to raise my hand in class, when I wanted to contribute my thoughts, was always a challenge for me. But none of my teachers ever seemed to recognize this; or if they did, they never acknowledged it.

The thing is, I really wanted to contribute to class discussions. I just didn’t always know how to. And on top of my perfectionism, I was slow. Because I did well in school, nobody was ever concerned. However, from the time I was in elementary school, it was difficult to complete assessments on time, and it always took me unreasonably long to finish homework in the evening.

When I was in grad school, I had a teacher who carried a stack of name cards around the room. As he lectured, he would randomly pick names from the stack to call on students. That class was a nightmare for me.

I understand the importance of engaging every student and making sure each child is actively listening. But what these methods can do, especially for a student like me, is cause this constant feeling of being on edge. I could never pay full attention because I always felt on alert. I was scared to be called on. I didn’t want to be put on the spot.

To this day, when I want to contribute to a discussion, raising my hand makes my heart beat a bit faster. And I often get so busy formulating my response in my head that I tune out the conversation that’s happening around me. For example, I was recently in a faculty meeting, and I was eager to contribute to the discussion. I let a few people answer before me, but while that was going on, I was scripting in my head what I wanted to say, which completely distracted me from hearing what my peers were saying. This is something I personally work on; it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often.

As teachers, we see it every day: Some students are less likely to raise their hand when they have a question or an answer to provide. Or, if they do raise their hand, they may not raise it high and are probably not vocal, which lessens the probability that I can get to them. Some students process more quickly than others, and those who answer questions more slowly may not always have the time needed to form a response.

Because of my experiences, I don’t believe in the practice of cold-calling on students. As a teacher, I am hyper-sensitive to how students feel during class discussion. There is a group of students who always shoot their hands up first, who are vocal and bold with their questions and answers. And then there are so many who are quiet. Their voices don’t get heard in the same way unless the teacher gives them the proper outlet. So I put a lot of effort into making sure that each student has a safe space to contribute.

It’s Not About the Tools. It’s About the ‘Why’

Some of our smartest students might be our quietest. How do we give them an opportunity to be vocal without calling them out or making them feel uncomfortable?

Some of our unsung superstars may need time to think before speaking up. How do we shift from a culture of calling on the student who raises her hand first?

How can we shift from a “first is best” culture to one that sends the message that everyone’s voice matters—and that everyone has the potential to excel in the classroom?

Technology has helped me answer those questions. It can provide a powerful way to engage students, inform individual and group instruction, differentiate lessons, document work, and empower students to direct their own learning.

But if you want technology to be a transformative force in your classroom, school or district, you have to start with “why?”

My flipped classroom is not just about having students watch videos at home and do textbook work in class. It is about easing their anxiety by giving them time to work through problems with their peers and with me. It is about personalizing the learning space, building relationships with students and gaining their trust, and being there to support them when they need me the most.

Perhaps, above all, it is about giving students a louder voice by listening in on their conversations and customizing class discussion to their needs.

My primary goal as a teacher is to help more students feel comfortable and confident in their learning. At the same time, I want to help parents better understand how to support their children.

As both a teacher and technology integrationist, I know the importance of finding simple solutions that keep the focus on the learning. One way to ensure we start the conversation with the pedagogy is to identify a set of go-to tools we help our students feel comfortable with, then to set a routine where using these tools becomes natural. Maintaining a small suite of tools also helps our students become fluent with technology that will boost their learning and productivity and serve them well in the long run.

Among the tools that I’ve found to be most helpful in my classroom include Pear Deck, Flipgrid and Edpuzzle. These are not the only ones that can work for you, of course. But whatever edtech tools you choose should be adopted with the following considerations in mind.

Does it provide each student in the classroom an equal voice, regardless of whether or how fast they raise their hands? Technology should provide an opportunity for each student to respond individually.

Does it engage every learner in the room, and require them all to actively participate and respond to each question, form an opinion, and submit an answer?

Does it create a safe space for each student to honestly respond and make mistakes? The most effective tools allow students time to draft out and revise responses before posting them, and allows teachers to make answers anonymous so that students don’t have to worry about how their peers might perceive their responses, or worry about answering incorrectly

Does it allow educators to efficiently and effectively target class and individual student needs, so that teachers can provide help to those who are struggling?

Does it differentiate how students can respond to questions? While some students are wonderful with oral discussion and on-the-spot responses, others are best when they have time to process and collect their thoughts before recording or typing an answer.

I was that student who could never come up with an answer on the spot. I was shy and dreaded speaking up in class. I was a perfectionist who desperately wanted to please my teachers and parents and to prove myself, but so often I felt like a failure because I didn’t have the answer first. My personal experiences as a student helped shape my thinking about the kind of teacher I wanted to be—and the kind of classroom environment I wanted my students to have.


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