I’d been aware of Susan Cain, but hadn’t really looked into her until now, prompted by the recent todo regarding the teaching of introverts. In her Ted talk , she reinforces a number of my beliefs and practices as a veteran introverted teacher. Here are some of them:
- Quiet time. Because there was a time when any sort of classroom talk was harshly subdued, many experts have since encouraged a lot of classroom talk. I’ve always found that hard, no doubt because of my introvert nature, one that needs a fair amount of quiet. And so I’ve always made time for chatter and time for quiet. When my students read it is quiet. Most of all, when they write it is quiet. I give each of them a so-called “office,” a space a bit apart from the rest so that they can be alone with their work and their thoughts. We talk about what do when stuck, how to operate without involving someone else. Many writing experts encourage talk during writing time, but not me. I keep the lights down (in fact, I have a bunch of those little battery-operated portable lamps that the kids bring to their desks if they need more light) and there is a serene calmness that they all appreciate.
- Talk time. When we are talking, I watch every child and I can absolutely see that those who don’t speak up are attending and thinking and are on top of everything. I’m tough with those kids who love to speak without having something to say. I feel we so overvalue this sort of aimless talk . I see it so often in my school, at assemblies, and elsewhere. Say when we go on museum trips and the educator happily asks my students for questions. Before long those who like to hear themselves talk come up with more and more, many rather random and unconsidered. I have kids who wave their hands, eager to be called on, and when you do have forgotten what they wanted to say. I have kids who, when I ask a question, raise their hands and ignore mine to say something else, to ask their own question (not bothering to wait for the time when they are invited to do). Not only do I think a lot about the questions I ask, but when I ask them I also include a lot of wait time to allow everyone an equal chance to answer, those who need time to formulate and answer as well as those who jump in without thinking.
- Small group critiques. While I actually enjoy collaborating, it is with people I’ve chosen to work with, people who complement me. I’ve never liked being tossed together in a random group of people to do something. One of my most memorable and hateful experience of this was long ago at a writer’s workshop for educators at Martha’s Vineyard. The first day of the course we were told to make up our critique groups. Many of the attendees had been coming for years, knew each others, and quickly formed groups. I ended up in a random group of those left over. I remember being furious about this, it felt like the quintessential case of the popular kids shutting out the unpopular ones. Having people, strangers, critique your work is hard. For the workshop teacher to so carelessly not think about this is something I never forgot. And so I do not have my kids critique each other in small groups. Instead I model and guide them in how to do it as a whole class. I have kids volunteer to be critiqued, talk a lot beforehand about safe things to say, and so forth. Each is given a postit to write notes as they listen. I then read the work aloud without identifying the child. I insist we focus on the WORK and not the author. Even if the kids know who the author is we act as if we don’t. The author is not allowed to respond to the critique. I usually start with some comments to model how to do it, but the kids quickly do it themselves beautifully. (I got the idea for this from a writing workshop I took years ago at the New School run by the legendary Bunny Gabel.)
- Small group work. I don’t have my students do a lot of work in groups because I know how many dislike it, how certain kids get stuck doing more of the work, the way the extroverts and introverts disagree, and generally have seen it not work. Just this past week I asked my students to do a quick self-evaluation of themselves using our report card checklist and one child wrote that he hated to work in groups because “no one listens to me.” It was also telling that working in groups was one of the few items my students commented upon (most just did the checks), always about how they didn’t like it. Until recently I always thought I was a lesser teacher for being unable to make such children feel valued when doing group work in my classroom. It is only now, after listening to Susan Cain, that I can say it is not my fault, but something we all need to take more into account. That group work isn’t necessarily better. I still do occasional group work as kids need to have experience with it, but take into account how to make it work for introverts and extroverts. Sometimes it is just a small-stakes situation and the kids are fine. After having not done them in a few years because I couldn’t seem to get them to work, last year I did a literature circle unit and was very pleased with it and so plan to do one again this year. I had the kids spend time at the beginning negotiating contracts as to how they would work together, the book was meaty, and the final project fun (a board game). It wasn’t always easy, but I’m hoping to give it another try this year and see if I can get it to work better, especially for those who normally hate working in groups. We shall see.
- Written communication. I feel very, very strongly about always providing a way for kids to communicate with me in writing — not a random “you can just drop me a note” sort of thing, but something built into the curriculum. The extroverts tend to dash things off as they happily let me know about their lives by talking to me, but the introverts are often very different. For the first half of the year I use dialog journals. In January we give the kids email and I regularly write each child and encourage them to reply. There are always a few who flower with this, those who have been quiet in class, who don’t dash in every morning with something to tell me, those who like to quietly let me know about their ideas, their lives, and such via an email. I learn about pain, about happiness, and more through these.
- Time to think. I need it so I’m sure there are kids in my class who need it too. And so I always allow time after asking a question for kids to think. Sometimes I give them all postits to write down their thoughts so not to forget them. I watch them and try to be sure that those who are tentative have a chance to speak too if they want to.
- Class participation. I do not use this as my primary way of determining what a child knows. I do pay attention to it and there are kids who are awesome public speakers and communicators and I absolutely celebrate them. But I also do not over-value this particular form of communication. If a child never speaks I do note that and try to help him or her because they need to be able to do so, their future teachers will demand it. However, I do not make a big thing of it. I also do a lot to make my classroom a very safe place for speaking up and generally it is rare I have a student who does not occasionally speak up because of this.