Facilitate the Classroom

In my class, I had two protocols in place to encourage students to participate more. Today I’m only going to talk about the first one. I’ll save the second for a followup post.

For years I struggled with how to get students who were less sure of themselves and a little on the quiet side to engage in class discussion. No amount of cajoling, pleading, or rationalizing that I would try would ever result in even a modest increase in the rate at which my most timid and shy students would join in the debate.


I had to spend a good amount of time getting anonymous feedback from students over the course of a few years to finally narrow in on why this happened. The results were obviously mixed and one could say that the reasons vary and it is often multi-factorial.

  • Sometimes it would be because they saw that other students had jumped in first a ‘stole’ their idea so they no longer felt as if what they had to say ‘mattered’
  • Sometimes they thought they would be wrong and didn’t think anyone else thought the same as they did.
  • Sometimes they didn’t want to look foolish for getting it ‘wrong’.

All of these reasons, in my opinion, are perfectly valid reasons to not want to participate in a class discussion. Even when a teacher says that it is ‘not good enough’ to not want to take part, students often feel even MORE adverse to contributing.

How to fix it.

I discovered it that it was obviously not because these kids didn’t have anything to say, they just didn’t feel comfortable with the format in which conversation/debate/discussion was being forced on them. If I could create a way for students to contribute without having to talk out loud I might be able to spur their comfort level into the realm of actual vocalizations (the goal is not always attainable). I had a student with profound hearing loss one year who provided me with the first solution. I had to institute a protocol for other students to agree with him so he could know if they agreed. He showed me the sign for “We’re the same”, can also be used to mean, “I agree”. It looks like this:

This changed the way my class has been run for years. Now, all my students learn from the moment they walk in the door on the first day that they always have the right to let me know if they agree with what someone in class is saying. Sometimes I will see a little 11yr old vigorously using the “We’re the same” gesture as if she is YELLING at me from across the room. The benefit is that it actually spurs conversation and discussion and creates a more relaxed atmosphere in class. Students aren’t left to wonder if what they said out loud was a hit with other students or not. In addition, students who don’t like speaking are now included in the conversation and can have their opinions hear without having to actually speak them. Finally the teacher get the added benefit of quickly scanning the room for understanding and can adapt and/or reinforce a talking point as needed. It really does speed up the class and everyone has more fun!


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