Class Participation: Let’s Talk About It

This story is one of three that we’re featuring on the question of class participation. For other perspectives, see “Participation Penalizes Quiet Learners” and “Encouraging Introverts to Speak Up in School.”

In early 2013, I wrote an article for the Atlantic about my policy on class participation. My editor wrote the headline, which captured the gist of the piece: “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” The subtitle gets at the story’s real thesis: “Every child should be graded on class participation—and parents don’t help their children when they argue otherwise.”

I wrote the piece because I really did—and still do—believe in my original thesis, and I hoped it would spark conversation about the role of class participation both in grading and in the bigger picture, in which teachers shore up life skills as well as academic knowledge of their students.

When a parent tells me that his or her child is simply not capable of communicating educational and emotional needs, I see a child even more in need of mastering interpersonal communication. I’m not talking about the value of communication as it relates to grades here; I am talking about the value of communication as it relates to personal health, happiness, and safety. A student who is unwilling to stand up for herself and tell me that she does not understand the difference between an adverb and a verb is also less likely to stand up for herself if she is being harassed or pressured in other areas of her life.

What I did not anticipate, however, was the avalanche of angry comments, emails, and rebuttals in the days after the article went live. The general consensus was that I was mean, insensitive, and, worst of all, uninformed.

The “uninformed” criticism stung the most. I’m a teacher as well as an education journalist, so my writing naturally tends to center around whatever is going on in my own classroom. This piece was no different, and I worried. If I was uninformed in print, did that mean I was uninformed in my own teaching practices as well?

The article was prompted by a specific interaction, a relationship with a parent that had gone sour over the issue of class participation. Over the course of a year or so, I’d been engaged in a longstanding discussion with this parent, who didn’t want class participation to factor into her daughter’s grade. Our communication had disintegrated over time to the point that I feared we would never reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

At the time, class participation was a small but symbolically significant part of my grading. Every week, students were given between one and ten points for participation, and in the final tally, it counted for less than 5 percent of their grades. The impact of this grade was not, however, the point. Over the course of my discussions with this parent, the class participation score had become a metaphor for the bias against introverts in the American education system.

As I pointed out in the Atlantic piece, I’m a confirmed extrovert, and I’m well aware that teachers tend to fall back on methods that work best for their own learning styles. I resolved to use this dilemma as an opportunity to re-examine my own teaching methods.

I sought the counsel of other teachers, specifically introverts. I’m married to an introverted teacher. His parents are both introverted teachers. I sought out and interviewed other introverted teachers and parents. One such educator, Dr. Kendall Hoyt—introvert, assistant professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School—agreed with my thesis and went on to offer her perspective on the use of class participation in her own courses:

You don’t get a pass for your personality type. I understand that social anxiety is a real thing—I am an introvert, and my mother used to actually faint if she had to do public speaking—but part of my job as a teacher is to teach people how to articulate and be heard.

I tucked myself away in a quiet corner of Dartmouth’s Baker Library with these interviews and my thrice-read copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet, its margins filled with my notes and its pages decorated with post-its, and wrote my Atlantic article. I was feeling pretty confident when it went live the following week.

Within days, my post received over 400 comments, and two rebuttal articles had been posted in response.

All teachers are subject to feedback and criticism, and teachers who write about their pedagogical practices for a national publication even more so. Teaching, after all, is a constant process of learning and unlearning, assessing and re-assessing. This, however, was feedback on a scale I’d never experienced before. The most articulate comments pointed to my lack of understanding about the nature of introverts, and the least articulate informed me where to shove my computer keyboard.

Unlike the comments that made me feel upset and defensive, two thoughtful responses elevated the discussion and led me to dramatically change my thinking: Katherine Schultz’s Washington Post article “Why Introverts Shouldn’t Be Forced to Talk in Class” and Susan Cain’s “Help Shy Kids, Don’t Punish Them” in the Atlantic.

Schultz, the author of “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices,” posed some great questions in her Washington Post article. These were questions that begged authentic, thoughtful answers and prompted me to re-evaluate my expectations regarding the purpose of class participation:

…can students participate without speaking out loud? Should teachers consider the times that a student gives silent assent to a question or thoughtfully jots notes for a future essay as participation? Are these useful forms of participation? It is important to note that one student’s silence can enable another student to speak. Do students have a responsibility to contribute to the silence of a classroom so that others can talk, along with a responsibility to contribute verbally to the discussion? How might silence be re-framed as a “productive” or useful contribution to participation in classrooms?

I talked about these questions with my colleagues at a middle school faculty meeting, and we debated the merits of our long-held understanding of what it means to participate in class. There are ways to encourage participation other than asking students to speak up in class, and silence is an incredibly important tool for promoting learning and teaching patience.

Cain’s and Schultz’s contributions to the discussion forced me to ask more of myself as a teacher, and their feedback taught me an enormous amount about the details I’d gotten wrong. Consequently, I learned a few things.

I learned that introverted is not the same as shy.

This is a point I understood in the abstract, but until I heard Katherine and Susan’s feedback and took the time to consider the attributes of “shy” and the attributes of “introverted,” I had never really internalized the difference. The student who cried and nearly fainted in my classroom the day she was required to dress-rehearse her graduation speech in front of the entire class may have been introverted, but in that situation, it was her shyness and anxiety around public speaking that fueled her fear, not her introversion.

I realized that I needed to come up with new techniques to encourage sharing in the classroom that stemmed from collaboration and joint efforts and offer ways for less verbal students to articulate their knowledge. Cain’s article offered one such technique, called “Think, Pair, Share.” This technique has become one of the most important tools in my teaching toolkit as it promotes collaboration and peer-to-peer learning among all students. Susan describes it beautifully, so here’s her explanation:

The teacher poses a question to the class and asks students to first reflect on or write down their answer, and then share it with a peer. Sometimes a shy student can find confidence through the encouragement of a single peer before sharing his idea with the larger classroom.

I learned that while it can be inconvenient to accommodate different personality types, it’s worth it.

I took Cain’s advice to heart, particularly: “Both parents and teachers can work with a child one-on-one, offering strategies for participation—such as offering a comment early in class, before anticipatory anxiety grows too strong.” I made a specific effort to employ this practice with the mother and student I’d been struggling to understand, and it improved our relationship overnight.

In the end, I still believe in the value of class participation, and it remains a part of the way I assess and evaluate my students’ understanding of class material, but I have engaged in a real effort to, as Schultz suggested, “rethink how we understand students’ silences” and “remain cautious about labeling children as introverts, rather than understanding the larger contexts of how and why they choose to participate in certain ways.”

With each new group of students that shows up at my classroom door, I learn a little bit more about human nature and what it means to create a classroom environment that fosters learning for everyone. I teach my students to admit to their failures, embrace them, and learn from those mistakes and misconceptions. I can hardly ask more of them than I ask of myself, so I tell them the story of my Atlantic article, complete with my errors, mistakes, and yes, even my misplaced defensiveness and anger. I may be their teacher, but in this case, Susan Cain and Katherine Schultz, and my students, were mine.

 

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