Every year, I get to know a new bunch of students. I enjoy sitting around a table and talking with them about Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, and many other books. What a treat! Sometimes, however, there are students who are content to sit and who refuse to enter into the discussion. It is our job as Omnibus teachers to help these quiet students to enter into the discussion. This post explains three paths you can take to help these quiet students open up and join in.
Know the quiet child so that you can fit the question/role to the child
All quiet children are not quiet for the same reasons. Some are quiet because they do not know the answer; others are quiet because they simply don’t like the attention of talking in a group; still others are simply made to hang back and analyze. Your first step as a teacher is getting to know why a particular child is quiet. Socrates said, “Know thyself.” If he was talking to teachers, he should have added, “Know your students, too!”
But how do you know why the student is quiet if they won’t tell you? I have found that talking with the parents can be crucial. A few years ago, I had a student who was very quiet, so quiet I would’ve probably fallen off my chair in shock if he spoke in a class discussion. He also looked like he was completely disengaged. Sometimes I wanted to tap him to see if he was awake or even alive. Shockingly, he was doing very well on my tests. How can you sleep through class and know everything that is going on? I contacted the parents and strangely enough their response was to send a book to me. This book used Aristotle’s types of persons as personality types and next to one of them was the name of their son. I wanted to know exactly what they meant by this so I reached out to them again. In this conversation, the student’s father said something like, “I know what you mean. He is frustrating when you try to get him to engage before he has heard everything, but he is listening. Ask him to summarize the entire class at the end.” He was brilliant at it. So, I used him in that particular way to help other students better understand all the things we had gone over in the discussion. I cooperated with his gifting, allowing him to demonstrate his participation even though the way he participated was unique.
Talk with the child and let them know that you will be calling on him or her and why
When you have a child that is very quiet, many times they are quite aware that they are quiet. They are often scared to speak. They are afraid to look or sound foolish. They don’t want to be wrong. All of these motives can lead a student to keep quiet even when they know the answer. They would much rather hide from the attention and potential embarrassment that comes from joining into the discussion then join in and get a good grade. Hiding is unacceptable, especially in an Omnibus discussion where they are grappling with truths and questions that will affect their lives. Obstacles are made to be overcome and if we have Christ with us, we cannot live—or discuss—in fear. So, as a good teacher, you need to let the quiet student know that you are going to help them overcome the fear of making a comment. When you tell them that you are going to do this, first, before you do anything else, just listen. Let them tell you why they are a frightened. They might have a good reason for being quiet or they could let you know something that might alter your approach to the concern. Usually, however, they are just scared. Let them know that you are going to start small calling on them only once or twice a discussion. In severe cases you might even want to let them know the question in advance, which can help the quiet student grow some confidence by knowing the answer they need to find in advance.
There are two more complex problems that have nothing to do with the quiet student that you also need to take into account. The first problem that causes students to be quiet is an atmosphere problem. If you have a “ruling” group of students that is too cool for school, the rest of the class quickly realizes that they don’t want to feel uncool in front of the cool kids and they clam up. You have to break this up by not allowing the cool kids to demean the other kids or by temporarily getting them out of the discussion and in the direst, most unresponsive cases out of the school. The other problem is an individual problem. You might have one student who is so smart and so engaged that they are unwittingly convincing the other students that they are not smart enough to speak. You have to restrain this student without squelching their enthusiasm thus allowing the average students to feel that their comments are worthy and good enough to say.
Call on the child and praise them for their efforts
Now, the moment of truth has come. It is time to call on the quiet student. When you do, praise anything that you can. I had a high school Psychology teacher who would never tell a student that they had given a wrong answer. If he asked, “What is 2+2?” and a student gleefully answered, “Five!” He would say something like, “That is a great answer. Does anyone have a different answer?” Now, we cannot and should not do this all the time, but with a quiet student, this can make all the difference. I do have to admit that so many students who sat on their hands in other classes were enthusiastic to answer in his class. You have to be gentle. Praise what you can. Often this does the trick or at least it gives the confidence to answer the next time. If you catch a few fish, fishing seems a lot more fun.
These tactics can help you draw out many of the quieter students and get them involved in classroom discussions. Often, when they enter the discussion, they eventually become excellent contributors because they retain some of the caution and thoughtfulness that initially made them reticent, producing intelligent, well thought out answers instead of answers off the top of their head. In conclusion, I just wanted to offer some encouraging news. If you as a teacher can help them get over this obstacle, they will bless you for it in the future.
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