Thursday, March 06, 2008

Quiet Students

I was speaking with Terry Sale and some of the A.P. Literature teachers about grading practices the other day, and Terry gave me a new idea...

When his students participate in Socratic seminar, the ones who don't speak receive a non-grade instead of a zero. Since I've been doing fishbowl discussion with my sophomores lately, I started thinking about whether a zero or a nongrade more aptly fits a student who simply chooses not to participate. I have many smart students who are terribly shy, and there's a part of me that feels like someone needs to "force" them to participate, however uncomfortable it may for them at first; the idea is that hopefully, they'll grow increasingly confident when it comes to class discussion once they get through the embarrassment of speaking out loud. But there's another part of me that respects the quiet, cerebral student who learns by listening, thinking, and reflecting through writing.

While students usually have the option to write for credit instead of discussion, there are two times in the unit when they must come into the inner circle and discuss. Still, there are always a few students who enter the inner circle on their assigned days with the same enthusiasm with which they might approach a root canal, and they sit mutely (and awkwardly) throughout the entire discussion without offering a word. In the gradebook, this tranlates into a zero out of ten. However, judging by the pained expressions on some of their faces, they probably were trying to participate...maybe. In any case, they weren't detracting from the discussion, which makes me wonder why they should receive a failing grade. They were, instead, a non-factor, which might be better represented by a non-grade.

How should this be handled? What's more important--encouraging students to participate, or creating grades that reflect their roles as accurately as possilbe?


Blogger lgaffney said...

I actually observed Terry's A.P. students in this "non-grade" practice and they were still much more participatory than my seniors with whom I've also applied the non-grade idea. I like the practice, but am not sure it pushes kids, which I think is important, particularly for the younger grades.
I tell my sophomores when I ask them to participate twice in our four-week fishbowl process that I am asking them to push themselves. I don't let students who find it hard to write a paper just receive a non-grade and, similarly, I don't allow students in this situation to not participate just because it's a challenge. I think there's room for both practices, but particularly with the younger kids, I think it's important to push them sometimes to reach beyond their comfort zone.

8:59 AM  
Blogger annes said...

THis is something I struggle with as well in my classroom. I want the students to at least try to speak up and voice their opinions because I think that is an important part of life, gaining the confidence to speak up in front of your peers.

But I also see the other side of things, where I think through blogging with their classmates their voice is heard. I know not all classes have that opportunity to live blog, but i have seen this as an excellent addition to giving the kids a voice.

However, I do think kids need to break out of their shell and try to speak up. I do like the idea of the non-grade though. I wonder though if that jsut encrouages further non-participation.

9:01 AM  
Blogger David said...

I have always been able to sit down in a relaxed atmosphere and talk to anyone about just about anything. But the moment I have to stand up in front of a group of people and give a presentation, or speech I absolutely freeze up - physically, mentally and emotionally.

I have spent my entire life being told my teachers, and later bosses, that I needed to learn to stand up in front of people and talk, and that I needed lots of practice to get better at it.

In school I would would get so worked up and worried about going to school on days I knew I was going to have to stand up in front of the class and talk that I would get physically ill. I almost skipped my own Eagle Scout Court of Honor because I would have to stand up in front of a room full of family and friends and be honored by them. The two months leading up to that day I was being regularly treated for ulcers by doctors and all my medical problems magically disappeared the day after the ceremony. During the ceremony one of the guest speakers who didn't know me well, actually asked if I was okay. I was standing there, shaking and covered in sweat. And all I had to do was stand there while he talked.

In my professional career I had one boss who decided that he was going to cure me of this problem by making me take public speaking classes and forcing me to give at least one presentation a week. Over that six month period I gained 30 lbs, used up all my sick leave, and was an emotional and physical wreck. I finally decided that he was not going to change his mind and was going to continue to torture me this way - so I quit. I dropped out of the upwardly mobile management track I was in and went back to being just a grunt level engineer. That was the day I realized that I would never reach the upper end pay scales or get the big promotions in my career field. That was also the day that I discovered that I was okay with that.

I have passed up several chances through the years for promotions, pay raises and recognition because it would put me into a position where I would have to stand up in front of people and speak.

I even skipped both my college graduations because I would have to walk across a stage and be handed a diploma. All I knew is that high school graduation almost killed me and I wasn't going to go through that again, twice.

For the last half decade I have been coaching middle school aged girls volleyball. Even there, during time out huddles, I kneel down and make sure that my players huddle up around me. It makes the atmosphere relaxed and personal and I can talk to them. I walked out onto the court during practice one day to talk to my team and they all sat down on the court to listen. I just stood there - my brain a complete blank. I almost turned and ran out of the room. Finally I managed to get heart rate to slow down enough to think clearly and I sat down with them. Then everything was fine.

The one day a year that I absolutely dread is sports night at our school. Because I have to stand up in front of a room full of parents and kids and introduce all my players to them. I have managed to get through that day, five times now and it never gets easier or better. I get terrified and physically ill just trying to get ready for that night. Three years ago I planned to have my assistant coach make the presentations for me. When the players found out they came to me, upset that I was not going to introduce them myself. So I have to do it. Each year I don't know how I get through that night. Everyone who knows me and knows what I am feeling while up on that stage tells me that I am doing a great job. But it is so traumatic that I don't remember the events.

What this gets down to is when you are pushing some of these quiet kids to get out of their comfort zone. Be careful not to push to hard. Pay close attention to those kids. Are they not participating because they don't want to, or because they can't. I had several teachers growing up who in spite of my most urgent protests and begging and pleading would force me to make presentations to the class. None of them ever connected the dots that I was a straight A student who received a failing grade on every single speaking assignment I ever had to give. None of them ever figured out that I could stand there face to face with a teacher and talk about anything they wanted me to. I could sit in class and answer any question they asked. I could sit at a desk in a circle with other students and discuss anything. But the moment they made me stand up and address that circle of students I literally wet my pants and ran out of the room. (you should try and live down that high school experience)

It took me years to recognize that the teachers I adored in school, the ones I truly appreciated and to this day still call when I go home, and make a point to stop and visit with were the ones never asked me to stand up and speak.

Conversely I finally started understanding that some of the teachers who I had detested for years. The ones who I held up as the worst examples of their craft were not necessarily bad teachers. They were just teachers who forced me do something that I was not able to do. But the trauma they inflicted on me with their blind insistence that "anyone can do this you just need practice" or "its time to grow up and learn to act like an adult" overwhelmed any good they may have done for me as a teacher. The sense of injustice I experienced knowing that I was probably the best prepared student in the class for a debate yet receiving an F's on the assignment because I was unable to focus my eyes on the notes in my hand, or to read them without stammering stuttering or practically fainting left me angry, and destroyed any respect for those teachers that I could have ever felt.

In most of my classes I understood that I was going to have to score well enough on all other assignments to make up for the failing grades I would receive on the speaking assignments.

I had a literature professor in college who would assign a book or story to read then we had to write a short essay on some topic in the book. On the day after the reading was due he would walk into class, collect our writings, then hold up the book and ask "Well, what did you think." Then he would just monitor or referee the discussions as needed. There were a couple students who never contributed to those discussions. Since our discussions always lasted for several class sessions he would keep track of who spoke up and who didn't. By the end of the second session anyone who had not spoken up would be called on specifically by the professor and asked a specific question about the story.

The two kids who seldom spoke usually didn't give long answers or mumbled them so most of us couldn't hear.

While walking back to the dorms with one of my quiet classmates after class one day, I asked what kind of grades she was getting, since she didn't ever speak up in class. She quietly whispered that she was getting B's on her papers and the professor had told her that she didn't have to speak up in class but she would regularly be asked questions and as long as she did answer them and her answers and her writings indicated that she was doing the reading her grades would not suffer from her silence. She eventually got a A in the class. She was very smart, but extremely shy. That short conversation that we had on the way back from class took several weeks of daily attempts on my part to get her to talk to me. The two of us dated for almost a year. During that time I discovered that she was a wonderful conversationalist, in a group of 2 or 3 people who she knew well. Her roommate and her and I could sit and talk for hours. But when you added in another person or two she just clammed up and didn't talk.

So what is the difference between a failing grade and a non-grade? Does a non-grade adversely effect the persons overall grade in the class?

I understand that many kids will not participate just because they don't feel like it or aren't prepared. Those kids need to receive failing grades. But if you have a student who is obviously struggling with speaking up, and who doesn't respond well when forced to speak up, how fair is it give that student a failing grade when they themselves may not know why they cannot speak up or for being unable to override their terror and fear?

1:34 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I share the previous commenter's memories of being terribly uncomfortable speaking in a group. (It's part of God's sense of humor that S?HE made me a teacher), so I have tried to develop a number of ways of making sure that even the shyest kids have the opportunity to share their thoughts in class discussion.
To ease my students into the idea of speaking on a topic, I adapted the idea of "speed dating" into "speed discussion." After they were given a text to read and annotate, I would set up concentric circles, A's on the inside B's on the outside. Once they were told to begin the A's had five minutes to relate the significant facts from what they had read, and one conclusion they drew, with an explanation for the conclusion. The B had to ask one open-ended question. Then the time keeper had them reverse roles, after ten minutes, the B's move to their right and it starts again.
From this, we move to circles in which we go 'round and everyone must share one line from something they have written concerning a topic. I've also had students "popcorn" in a discussion where each must call on another to continue the conversation and you must say at least one sentence on the topic before calling another person (no one can be called on a second time until everyone has been called on once). I've had them do text mining where each person pulls a line from a text and explains what it means to him/her.
Over time, the combination of these and other techniques make my classroom a safe place for every voice to be heard. It's rare, by the end of a term, that any student won't participate to some extent. (Rare, but not unknown--with some kids it's pathological.)

2:08 PM  
Blogger khora said...

i'd like to thank you for this blog -

i spent half of the night reading it and meditating over its content and wishing you had been one of my teachers:)

your ability to listen, to accept others, the creative aspect of your work, your deep involvement in what you do, the feeling i got you really like what you are doing and you wish to continue it as long as possible - all this impress and humble me -

it's great to know there is somebody like you somewhere

5:29 PM  
Blogger joeyw said...

I think you make some very interesting points about both sides of the situation, and being a high school student myself I understand what it is like to participate in a Socratic seminar in class. Whenever my teacher’s do decide to hold a Socratic seminar I usually try to participate and contribute to the conversation as much as I can. There are however, as you mentioned always some students that for whatever reason choose not to participate. I don’t think it’s because they’re bad students or don’t have an opinion on the subject. It is more likely that they’re just shy or timid about sharing their opinions. I think what you are doing right now is probably the right thing to do and the easiest way to make sure your students are understanding what you’re talking about in class without having to force them to participate or embarrass them. I would however maybe talk to them privately or before class about why they’re not participating and set a goal for them to maybe talk two or three times in order to break them out of their shyness because in most jobs they’ll eventually have to speak up publically and speak in front of other people and what better place to practice it but in front of their classmates in high school.

5:35 PM  
Blogger seanb said...

Dear Kristen,
I think you did a great job addressing this problem through such strong points. Your article was very interesting to read and throughout the whole time I was reading it I was brainstorming ideas to fix this problem. Being a high school student myself I see this from a different perspective. I myself love seminars in my history class and I am usually just a natural talker. But I am also friends with students who don’t talk at all. After a seminar they walk out of class with me regretting that they did not say anything. One of them blames her confidence issues while another blames that she is an outcast. But at the end of the seminar they walk out with great notes. I think that there really is no solution to getting every child to talk. You could force them to in the middle of the seminar, but that may be unexpected and would throw them off making them appear to be stupid. What my teacher does is he tries to for warn the class that there is a seminar and that every student will need to talk, even if it is unrelated to the topic they are talking about. This has always seemed to be great because more children talk about different things and end up tying them back to the original subject. But there is no reason not to give them a grade if they do not talk during a seminar. Then they are not fully getting their maximum points unlike other students. I think if you talk you get a grade and if you don’t you get a zero.

9:54 PM  
Blogger kellyS said...

I made many connections to this blog with mixed feelings about these situations. In many of my classes we have large discussions and have used the “fishbowl” technique. This reminds me of when we would have Socratic Seminars in middle school and my teacher would actually have us write down who we thought was the “Captain Obvious” (person who stated obvious facts that didn’t help the conversation), the “Silent Bob” (person who never talked), the “Chatty Cathy” (person who would non stop talk taking up the entire conversation), and the “Doctor Brilliant” (person who made very good points and contributed well to the seminar. Then he would actually read the names aloud of who got the most votes for each personality. Looking back at it I think that this was a horrible thing to do, because if someone was voted the “Chatty Cathy” then next discussion they wouldn’t say a word in fear of having that title again.

In my opinion I think there are a few students who choose to not participate simply because they have no interest in the subject and don’t care all that much about their grade. Then again that is not fair to those students who do care but are too shy to speak their opinion. Therefore I like the idea of having alternatives to the discussion, that way if the student really does want to participate they will have that opportunity to do so. For example maybe the class could write down their views on a piece of paper and then the teacher could read what they wrote to the rest of the class, then to those who do enjoy speaking could respond verbally to that.

10:14 PM  
Blogger avereel said...

Kristin L,
I know how hard it is to be the student whose grade suffers because of shyness. I have often been the victim of it. A lot of times, and to a lot of teachers, it seems like a good idea to give a non-participate a zero for the day. Like you said, maybe it will get the message across, and the student will learn to get past the awkwardness of speaking out in a large group. However, you also said that it often seems like the student was trying to participate. Your probably right, It is hard for us shy students to speak out, especially in front of other students. There is always the fear that we will say something stupid that the class will hold over our head forever. Even if us quiet kids can get up the courage to speak up, we are often over-looked by the class. I myself have been in many situations where I had a really good point to add to the discussion, but the more verbal students spoke over me because they are so used to me just sitting there. I know this is the case for many students. We want to sit back and listen to the group. We want to absorb the knowledge and input of others. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in what the others are saying we don’t want to interrupt. Other times, we just don’t want to distract from what the others are saying. You made a point that students who are non-factors could maybe get non-grades. I agree. Those of us who are too scared to speak shouldn’t be punished. Unless a student is completely and utterly out of it, there shouldn’t be any reason for them to receive a zero. They don’t contribute, but they don’t distract either. Perhaps the best way to handle students who have forgotten how to use their voices is to have them write a summary after the seminar, just to make sure they haven’t forgotten to use their brains as well.


6:39 PM  
Blogger Renee Howell said...

Kristin - Very interesting post. Since I'm not an educator, but serve on the School Board, reading what educators post is always an eyeopening experience for me. The comments are also helpful. The grading dilema of trying to put things in neat little boxes when so many of us are un-tidy creatures - quite the challenge. Something to continue to contemplate. Thanks for the post and for being a teacher....

9:22 AM  

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