Sunday, February 10, 2013

Speaking up in the classroom

Twitter was abuzz Friday with talk of an article from a teacher about introverts in the classroom. The author is a middle school teacher, an acknowledged extrovert, and wrote of the introverts in her classroom. She discussed parental concerns about her practice of participation points in class and writes of her desire for the introverts in her classroom and her belief that they need to speak up. While I agreed with some points in the article, and was glad she referenced Susan Cain’s recent book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I had some concerns. Sentences like this one made me cringe:

Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.

I have no desire to bash this teacher – who has written several blog posts I find compelling – so let me focus instead on a little background.

I am a shy person. I don’t know that I would classify myself as an introvert or an extrovert. I have Cain’s book, and know it will be amazing, but I haven’t read it yet. While many folks laugh when I classify myself as shy, it is true. I have learned to speak up over the years, but that hasn’t always been the case.

In school I always sat behind the tall people, shrinking down when the teacher looked for someone to call on. If I was called on, my stomach immediately clenched, my heart raced, my face grew red. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer; it was that I hated speaking up. There were some classes that I would speak up in – but it wasn’t due to a participation point. It was because I felt comfortable. I had a relationship with that teacher. That I didn’t feel judged or on the stage. I was still nervous to speak but would do so without being prompted. And it should be no surprise that those were the classes I learned the most from.

Fast forward twenty years from high school. I still have a hard time speaking up – but I do it. I’ve presented to hundreds of people at conferences, or parent nights. I’ve spoken in front of school boards and assemblies. Do I ever feel comfortable? Not in those situations, but I still go out and do it. If I feel the topic is important, I am compelled to speak. I go into it knowing my neck will get red, my voice might shake, but I am ok with that. No teacher has taught me how to do this, I should note, I have taught myself.

And now I look at my sons – both would fall into the same group I am from. Specifically my youngest, Liam, would absolutely be classified as shy. Is he an introvert? I am not sure. But he struggles to make eye contact, to speak up for himself. Do I force him to, absolutely not. We have quiet conversations. I teach him my tips that I’ve learned. He finds his comfort zone. And little by little he opens up at school. We have been blessed with teachers that “get” Liam. Who will talk to him on the side. Who ask him questions, get to know him. For them, I am beyond grateful. They see my son and care about him.

When looking at my classroom on any given year, I have a range of students. Some are outspoken, some are not. Some like to work in groups, some prefer to be on their own. Some want to participate in class discussions, some prefer to turn and talk to a neighbor. I feel like my job as their teacher is to get to know each of them and know what makes them tick. I want to set them up for success in our classroom and have it be a place they know that they are respected and valued. So if that means some will share with the group and some prefer to share with me during conferences, I’m fine with that. Education should not be geared only to the kids who speak up because those quiet kids in the back, the ones slinking down in their seats, they have something to contribute too. We just need to let them find their own way.