It seems to me that my students talk a lot. I don’t understand why. What have they got going on in their lives that is so interesting? How much can be happening in their lives that they need all of the time that they can get to discuss it? With all of the talking, when do they actually do anything worth talking about?
The only time that my students are quiet, like, properly quiet, is when they’re being read to. For whatever reason, when a book is being read aloud to them, they listen.
I remember the first time this happened, back when I was completing my second placement during my B.Ed. program. I was amazed. Shocked, really. They listened. The students sat on the carpet and listened. All of them. Some seven years later, I’m still just as amazed when it happens. I’m not even a very good storyteller; I’m definitely no LeVar Burton.
It seems that from even before the students walk into class, until they leave for the end of the day, they’re talking. They just can’t seem to help themselves. I can barely get through saying good morning before I’m interrupted for the first time during the day. By the time I’ve walked over to the visual schedule to go over the day’s plan, there are at least three hands up with a question about the day and four other people talking.
I’ve gotten into the habit of biting my tongue and waiting for the students to realise that I’m waiting before starting to talk. As soon as I inhale in preparation to speak, the silence is broken. My attempt to speak was a Pavlovian cue for them to start up their conversations again.
This is some weird mirror game. It’s mimicry at it’s finest.
Eventually, I’ll be able to call on those students who have waited patiently with their hands in the air. After I’ve finished saying their name, somebody else will start talking and the person who I’ve called on will continue to ask their question, assuming I can hear them. It’s just a giant cacophony of pre-teen voices vying for attention.
My patience has certainly grown thin with this. I’m annoyed by it. I don’t appreciate it. I find it rude and disrespectful. More than anything, I don’t understand it.
How is it that they aren’t aware of what’s happening around them? How can they not hear that someone else is talking? How can they not know that it’s not their turn to speak? How come it’s up to me to let them know that when I’m having a conversation with someone, it’s not a good time to insert themselves into the conversation and ask to use the toilet? Why do they chant my name incessantly until I look up and answer their call?
I’ve walked into other classrooms and seen students sitting quietly at their desks, doing their work. I’ve seen them wait patiently for me and their teacher to finish our conversation before walking over and asking whatever question they want to. I’ve seen it, with my own eyes.
In my own classroom, I’ve heard students tell their friends and classmates to stop talking because I’m waiting for them. I’ve heard them groan with frustration because they aren’t able to hear what’s going on. I’ve heard them call each other out when they ask a question that was literally just answered.
I will call students out and have fun with them at their expense. The students soon learn that I’m willing to take a joke, too. They know that I’m not as stringent as perhaps I should be and that I place a lot of responsibility on them for their own learning.
As I grow in my career, I’m learning about the importance of structure and routine. I’ve started to introduce this routine in my planning and, by extension, into students’ learning. Simple things, like starting the day with a read aloud or a ten-minute write, help me set up students’ expectations and give them a sense of agency through predictability. Students are more responsive when they know what’s coming.
These routines, this predictability, have to be established over time, through repetition. Preparing slides, instructional videos, outlines, and checklists for students takes me only so far because students forget about and lose these things. It’s not enough to just give students the materials they need to be successful, you have to show them how to work with those materials and how to use them to their advantage. And this has to happen not just once but repeatedly.
It’s no secret or great revelation that attention spans are shrinking. Sitting through a 15-second commercial on YouTube is enough to get me to click off the video and find something else to watch. Even waiting for the “skip to video” button to appear after five-seconds is sometimes too long. My ability to sit and read for an extended period of time, say, longer than about ten minutes, if I’m lucky, is something I’m actively practicing to improve. For many of my students, if not all of them, watching three consecutive minutes of commercials twice during a half-hour program is a Jurassic concept. Not only are our attention spans shorter but our need to fill our time is greater.
We are no longer familiar with boredom. We don’t know what it means to be left alone. No matter where we are, we are in contact with others. Our phones are our lifelines. Our connectivity with the online world is so great, so pervasive, so insidious, that it’s become part of our existence. We don’t know what it’s like to have to be quiet because there’s no one else around. In our online world, there is always room for one more voice.
That students walk into school, tuned right up, talking so ferociously, can, I think, only be a sign that the connections they are making online, while convenient and constant, are insufficient. When they are talking to people in the real world, when they can see who they are talking to in realtime, and when they are responded to before they can hit send, they are fulfilling a fundamental human need for connection. School is one of the only places where they are able to make and maintain these “real life” connections with other people, especially in today’s learning climate.
The problem we face in a classroom is that we are competing with a precedent that has been set by a force much more flexible and powerful than we are. Online, the rules are different. The expectations are different. The consequences are different. You can tune out whatever you want to and immerse yourself is whatever you fancy. You don’t have to wait your turn to say what you want to because the chat screen will just keep advancing. Nobody is ever asked to stop talking or to wait until someone else finishes speaking.
The expectations that I have in my classroom for appropriate conversational etiquette are antiquated. They are traditional. They are what I was raised on, what I learned at home and in school, and what I believe are the most appropriate rules for engagement. They are what I understand. Following the rules that I know are the only way that I can understand what is going on.
For students today, they have to learn two different approaches: one that asks them to wait and one that encourages them to speak out. It’s not impossible for them to navigate these two world effectively. It’s going to take them longer to figure it out, though, because one is far more attractive an option than the other.
For teachers, a similar problem exists: how do we encourage student voice while also engendering a sense of responsibility to the voices of others? We have to ensure that everybody who has a story to share – everyone – has the opportunity to be heard. We need to establish this as a routine part of our existence in a community, where talking and listening are not the priority but engaging in productive conversation is.