Managing Student Voices in Quiet & Loud Classrooms

CI teachers require frequent student responses in class so we can assess whether students understand us; it is such a struggle with silent classes whose main response is an empty gaze (or blank computer screen). Yet that lack of response may have been a trained response.

Yes, I may have unwittingly trained my classes to be extra quiet.

I am guilty of asking questions anticipating a specific choral response followed immediately by asking an open-ended question without any indication that there is no ‘correct’ answer. No wonder students hesitate, unsure whether there is a ‘correct’ answer or if I am seeking creative responses. When I do this, I am teaching them to remain quiet in their uncertainty.

It is great when students are following me so well that they can instantly intuit the difference between a factual ‘choral response’ type question and a ‘begging for creative details’ type question. But what about the students that aren’t following everything clear as water? What about the students who wonder if there is maybe a ‘correct’ detail that they missed. Of course they’ll choose to remain silent rather than risk looking like a fool.

I want to ask questions so that my students are roaringly correct every time they open their mouths. That is the kind of confidence I want to build. When I ask questions that confuse them, I almost always step back and turn it into an either/or question so that they can choose the best option. So why would I ask questions in such a way that plants doubt in the minds of my students?

I’ve created several different routines to indicate to students whether I want a choral response or raised hands. I used to have a stop sign that I would raise whenever I wanted a choral response. I tried saying ¿clase? ¿clase? whenever I wanted a choral response. I myself have undermined both of these routines by not consistently using them. Consistency is key to classroom management. My silent classes are the price I pay for my lack of consistency!

Cécile Lainé shared her system so that students know what kind of response she is looking for when she asks a question. (If you do not have pictures enabled on your email, you’ll want to enable them to see the following graphic).

I like how having the teacher raising two hands in order to prompt students to raise one hand is so purposeful. I also like counting down, if only I can train myself to do this consistently. I love that Cécile has included an option for allowing students to blurt, because honestly that has its place in my class culture too.

A poster helps teach this class routine and, more importantly, maintain it as part of the class culture. The poster helps remind me to perform this routine. I recommend that the poster be written in English (unless you only teach heritage learners) so that you can silently point and pause when the rule is broken. All posters should be large enough to be seen from the back of the room. I would draw this on a huge sheet of butcher paper. The other English poster that I keep in my classroom is a banner stretching above the whiteboard that reads, “One person speaks, everyone listens”.

Why English?! I think it is a novice teacher’s mistake to fill their classroom with a scolding voice; experienced educators draw and maintain clear behavioral boundaries but rely on silent routines so as not to poison their relationships with students. I want my teacher voice to be consistently warm and inviting; I don’t want to confuse students. Consistency is important. As much as possible I react to breaking of class rules silently. My silence is loud. I silently point and pause with a neutral gaze (neither smile nor frown, but rather relaxed facial muscles like I am bored), hand raised indicating the appropriate poster whenever the rule is broken. Slowly… I maintain my posture a few beats longer than socially comfortable. When I resume speaking, it is still a warm and inviting voice.

One advantage of adopting Cécile’s system is that it builds in a tiny amount of wait time into the response, slowing down your instruction and giving students time to process the language. I recommend making an effort to adopt this system if you are like me and tend to forget routines when immersed in class conversation… it’s worth it.