What does work look like? To some teachers, it’s the sound of pencils quietly scratching on paper and students breathing. I have tried my best to get there and it just isn’t going to happen. But I’ve made a discovery. This particular group of students this year works while they’re talking and laughing. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s the truth. I used to rant and scold and skulk around the room trying to get them to be quiet, becoming increasingly frustrated as I did. Over the past few weeks, it dawned on me that silence might actually be bothering them.
Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” came to mind recently while I was being reflective. I considered that silence might be so alien to my students’ lives that it might actually make them uncomfortable. With that in mind, I decided to try an experiment. After a reading segment, I introduced the writing prompt. I told them they could generate their evidence with a partner, but they had to produce their own essay. During that time, I decided I would let them set their own volume level. I circulated around the room offering assistance and giving gentle nudges to those who were having trouble getting started. The room became fairly noisy–more noisy than I would like it–but I let it continue so long as it didn’t get out-of-control. The level of chatter got right up to my maximum level of discomfort, but I tried to hold back. I called out some time reminders so students knew where they stood as the period drew to a close. At the end of the time, I had an in-basket full of papers. Most of the time, almost half the students would have just sat there doing nothing. This time, I only had a couple of hardcore do-nothings.
I was impressed. I have tried it several times now and I’m amazed. The kids are working better than they have all year. They still have a long way to go quality-wise, but a lot more of them are turning in work than before. I can only conclude that they are much more comfortable with what seems to be calamity than I am. In the midst of the clamor, they are working, whereas just weeks ago, in forced, sullen silence, they were resisting and fighting me. I guess silence just isn’t a part of their lives; they don’t feel comfortable with it.
I guess the lesson is to go with what works, rather than trying to impose what we think is best. It’s a different world for them than it was for me.