There are so many reasons why a student may be quiet in class. The language may be difficult. They may need more time to think than the pace of discussion allows. They may not have been able to read because of other things happening in their lives that they can’t control. They may be really shy.
But there are ways to help quiet students build confidence and begin to participate.
In today’s episode, I’ll share what I learned over many years putting a strong focus on student-centered discussion in class.
By the way, I’ve gathered my top free resources for better discussions into one place for you, in my new “Better Discussions Toolkit.” If you’d like to put it to use in your classroom, you can sign up to have me send it your way right here.
You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
One of my favorite ways to help quieter students (and honestly, all students) participate effectively is with discussion warm-ups. A warm-up can be as simple as having everyone look back through the reading and write down one question for discussion, or as complex as watching a related news clip and then writing for ten minutes about how the current event relates to the reading.
Taking the time to think through questions, ideas, and text passages before the conversation even starts gives every student time to gather their thoughts and prepare something to say. This paves the way for a quieter student to read something they’ve written or offer a question without a lot of stress.
Talking with students who are feeling stressed or hesitant in discussion and letting them know you are purposely trying to build in opportunities for them to build their confidence in discussion can really help. Then you can actually make eye contact with these student now and then when you are trying to help them share their ideas, just to remind them that you have their needs in mind as you ask if someone would be willing to share a quotation or question they have prepared.
Working with Kids who Dominate Discussions
Speaking of individual conversations, it can also really help bring balance to your room to have individual conversations with students who are dominating. I don’t mean to fault these students (I was for sure one of them when I was in school). They’ve probably been rewarded for dominating their whole lives.
But if three kids are answering every question, and 27 are silent, I don’t believe ignoring kids eager to speak and cold calling on the rest is the answer. It’s an understandable way to try to bring balance, but it’s often frustrating for everyone involved.
Years ago I taught a senior elective called “Creative Fiction.” It somehow managed to attract both the top students in the school and the kids who found English the most challenging. Two kids – the school president and an incredibly confident writer – got all the air time at first. But I knew the other kids too, from teaching them junior year, and I knew they had amazing ideas and perspectives to contribute. They were almost all emerging bilinguals, and they could not break into the pace of conversation as my two leaders ping ponged their ideas back and forth.
So I talked to these leaders. About how the conversation might be enriched if there was room for other people. I tried not to make them feel bad – after all, they were making wonderful contributions. I just asked them to try stepping back a little to see what happened.
A few classes later, a previously silent boy made a wonderful comment. Another followed on his heels. And another. I still get goose bumps thinking about that discussion, and the conversation I had afterwards with the school president.
She stopped by my desk in tears. “I really didn’t think they had anything to say,” she told me.
By choosing to listen for a period, she had an epiphany that I imagine stuck with her through many future situations. It is, in the language of the movie “Inside Out,” a core memory for me too, as a teacher.
As the class went on, my leaders continued to say a fair bit after a few very quiet days. Write well. Generally crush it. But my quieter students found more and more opportunities to share their voices too.
Discussion Role Cards
Discussion role cards are a short term strategy I sometimes use to help students push out of their comfort zones. While this won’t fix everything, it can help students try out different possibilities with purpose. You can hand out cards to specific students if you wish, or try my favorite way to share them, tape them under students’ desks and ask them to keep their roles secret.
A quieter student may feel a little more comfortable asking students as the “Discussion Sparker” or sharing an example of irony as the “Literary Terms Expert.” It’s almost like wearing a costume – they are participating in a unique role, and so is everyone else around them.
Discussion role cards are likely to have the most impact on your overall dynamics if you invite students to reflect after the conversation. What did they learn about what they might contribute? But also, what did they learn about how the discussion might look different if people tried out different things?
The discussion role cards are one of the free resources in the new Better Discussions Toolkit, so remember to grab it here!
I’ve saved the big one for last here. All of my intentional work with helping quieter students into discussions came as a result of using The Harkness Method in my classes for discussion. The Harkness Method is a student-centered form of discussion in which the teacher helps set kids up for success but rarely speaks during the main discussion.
It’s an incredibly powerful way to help students take ownership over their learning AND their group dynamics. Because there is a student observer during every discussion who is intentionally focused on watching the class dynamics and then making a recommendation for improvement to the community, students quickly identify their discussion weaknesses and seek to improve the class patterns.
Harkness can seem intimidating, but I recommend diving in for a Harkness experiment of several weeks or a month’s worth of discussions, and then deciding if you want to move forward with it. I chose to experiment with it for one month in every class my first year of teaching, and I never looked back. All full group discussions in every class I taught at every level were based in the Harkness method after that, and I really can’t recommend it more.
It is a completely different way to experience discussion than standing at the front of the room asking questions and dealing with crickets. Honestly, I also feel it’s life changing in terms of understanding group dynamics and valuing everyone’s perspectives.
I could talk about Harkness here for a very long time, but instead I’m going to point you to two places where I’ve already given you my walkthrough of the method and answered frequently asked questions.