Sunday, August 20, 2017

On Forced Class Participation: Dear WhateverHerNameIs

Dear WHNI:

I read with interest your posting on the BAT blog. I teach high school students, but I both know and remember the issues you speak of.

You write very thoughtfully about the challenge of being a shy and quiet student in a classroom where participation is demanded of you, and let just say that it can really suck. Shy, quiet and introverted humans (the three groups overlap, but aren't necessarily identical) too often have to deal with folks who don't get it, who have never had those feelings, who think that these are traits to be "fixed" or "overcome." It is a big fat pain in the butt to deal with someone who thinks there is only one right way to share or express feelings and ideas. I have at various times in my life wondered how those outgoing, verbally expansive, participate-till-they-drop folks would like to be stuck in a class where students were expected to never participate, even when they wanted to. A hundred years ago, students like you were the star pupils-- quiet, respectful, never speaking up, always attentive and on task.

I appreciate you get how much teachers want-- and in some professional sense need-- to know what's going on in a student's head. But on this point you are absolutely correct:

Because you cannot change a person yourself. The second you start trying to is the second things go from normal to wrong, and the second my school day gets a little bit longer and a lot more unbearable. The class with the random participation clogs my thoughts and even when I’m happy, I’m anxious. Even after you called on me and my heart started pounding, I’m thinking about it. And it sucks.

Indeed. One of the very worst thing a teacher (or parent) can do is look at a young human and think "Boy, this would go really well if you could just be someone else. That's all I need-- just for you to fundamentally change how you go about being in the world." And while you say it's okay to have this kind of thought, as long as it's just a thought, I'm going to go one further-- it's not useful to even have that thought, because it's impossible to have that thought without having it color your action and behavior.

And it's big principle to grasp, because historically, we have screwed this one up over and over-- left-handed students, non-white students, students with various disabilities-- we have approached them both as an institution and as individuals with an attitude of, "First, we need you to change who you are." This is, in fact, one of my issues with modern charters-- far too many of them will only teach you if you are in the world the way they want you to be, and all others can just leave.

Our mission should be to find ways to teach students as the people they are. We teachers do have the job of figuring out what's going on in your studenty craniums, but it's a lazy cheat to say, "You have to show us that the one and only way we prefer." (One more reason using standardized tests to measure all of education is a crock.)

It's a never a wise teacher move to try to force students to do anything-- because we can't. When you were littler, we could trick you into thinking you didn't have a choice. Now you're old enough to know better. So I assume I can't "make" my students do anything-- but I can certainly try to nudge them in particular directions.

Having cheered you on for most of your piece, I will disagree with you on one point. You write

And I can almost guarantee that you have a handful of students (or peers, if you’re not a teacher) in your mind that match that same description. The kids who mind their business, take their notes, and leave. We don’t cause trouble. More often than not, we’re probably good students. 

I'd hope that students in my classroom set their sights a little higher than just coming in, doing the basic of what's expected, keeping their head down, and leaving. Students who are merely compliant, who just show up and do what they're told-- those are not my idea of good students. That's a low bar to clear. I hope you set a higher bar for yourself in the future.

That said, as teacher, it's my job to make it possible and at least a little more comfortable for my students to do that. I provide a lot of different avenues for "participating," and I do my best to maintain an atmosphere that is safe and non-threatening, where students can do their thing without having to feel anxious. I don't claim to be perfect, and I'm not sure I want to be-- the biggest enemy of growth is comfort. But if you were sitting in my classroom this fall, my hope is that you would be less anxious and able to challenge yourself without having to feel forced to act like someone you are not.

Finally, I will meet my students for this year in about ten days, and I want you to know that I'll be thinking about your words as I work with them in the months ahead. I hope your school year is great.


  1. When I was a freshman, my team for review games learned to sit me in the front. I always knew the answer but couldn't manage to get the teacher's attention. Even as an adult, I haven't gotten much better at breaking into conversations that don't have rigidly structured turn-taking.

    My school teammates decided it was valuable for my voice to be heard, so they arranged things to make sure it happened.

    Insert obvious moral of the story here.

  2. I'm a parent of a kid who will do The Bare Minimum in most of her classes.


    To hear her tell it, It Depends.

    Some teachers, to her mind, don't deserve more than that: they call out kids for every real or imagined slight, intentional or accidental on the part of the students, in front of their classes, and so for them she does only what she has to in order to get the grade that will move her along with a minimum of effort or fuss on her part.

    Some classes are challenging and she has, like most teens, a pretty full plate (we do try our best as parents to keep it manageable but she's our first so we're admittedly muddling along with her as we all work out her "optimal" scheduling capacity), so she does what she has to in order to stay on top of the material and get at least a B.

    And sometimes she's just wiped out, whether it's from illness or because some circumstance (sick parent meaning kids have to pick up slack if other parent is unable to take off work) infringes on her time.

    Oh, and sometimes, like most teens - and again, it's a Thing we work on as parents because this is a Learning Experience for us all - she has other priorities: she loves to write fiction (and is damn good at it!), she's a musician and home practice has to happen if she wants to continue to improve her craft (also a valid learning experience AND grades for her Orchestra class & chorus class), she occasionally babysits for neighborhood families to earn her own money (oh, wow, another Learning Experience, even if it's not in the domain of Classroom Time).

    And God forbid the kid have a social life - she's not out with her friends every day, or texting til midnight (during the school year, anyway LOL).

    Honestly, for an introverted teenager who's grown up with an Aspie mom, she is a surprisingly normal high-schooler, if her friends and classmates are any indication (even though they skew toward marching band, orchestra, and drama :-)). She, like all of us adults, are human, has human needs for Down Time, for privacy, for some level of autonomy not just outside school hours (and her blog about school just isn't enough).

    It's unfortunate that current educational trends toward data-driven instruction (which in our school system translates to Make All Kids Do The Same Thing So We Compare Red Delicious Apples To Red Delicious Apples, No Granny Smith Allowed) and even toward the recordation of SEL data are giving the push for all-out full-on equivalent participation (don't get the kid started on Group Work!) from every student, because the Widget effect allows for so little outside-the-box existence (forget thinking - it goes way further than that!) that we are in danger of outing introverts in favor of elevating only extroverts. There's pushing kids a bit out of their comfort zone and there's full-on shaming them over their Selves...and too many teachers feel they have to engage in the latter. I'm glad that *you* are flexible that way, but sadly, you're the exception in my experience, not the rule. (You're exceptional, and in a good way! :-))

    (For the record, I wish you had been my high school English teacher, and that you were my kid's English teacher, because she hasn't had a good engaging understanding caring outside-the-box English teacher since 6th grade.)

  3. A big problem is that because of the curriculum in school now, teachers (or administration?) now have participation grades. This does not bode well for some students and if I were in school now, I can tell you that I would be one of those students. I don't know the answer but you can't please everyone. I do know that not every student deserves an "A" and it seems that this is the way to get that grade (or keep it up)so that mommy and daddy can be happy at report card time. Participation grades don't seem like the best for anyone involved..students or teachers

  4. Dear students, know that as your math teacher, I view you as more than a test score. You are so much more and I hope you come to learn that as your teacher for a year I know that. You are at my school, an academic magnet. That means you have agreed to take on a heavier burden than the normal teenager ... or that your parent made that decision for you. If you do not agree, you have my sympathy. Nevertheless, the "I will fail my way out of this school" is not a good strategy for dealing with parents because those Fs will follow you to whatever school you can maneuver yourself into. I work to limit my homework assignments to 30 to 45 minutes per class (every other day) because I know that you have other classes to keep up with. More importantly, I know that as an adolescent you have a developmental agenda that is as important as the content I want you to learn. So I limit my out of class work for that important time when you need to hang out with peers and form those social bonds that will carry you through life.

    With that out of the way, I want to say I appreciate you introverts, you shy, quiet people who want to observe and soak it in because that is how you learn best. When I sat in your seat, I was the same way. Still am, to be honest. I will not force you to go to the board and share your work if you do not want to. You would rather see others share their thinking. I'm okay with that.

    However, when I am providing instruction and asking questions, be aware that I may call on you. It is not to torture you. It is to keep everyone engaged and thinking about the lesson. If you cannot say anything, I will not prolong your agony. I will allow your classmates to jump in (because most of them are eager) and help you out.


    Your teacher

  5. My experience in K -12 was mostly unpleasant, even though the school district constantly bragged about how exceptional it was. It was precisely the experience I had which made me approach teaching very differently.

    I daresay this blog attracts caring teachers. The ones just looking for compliance are not likely to spend their free time here.
    Students have to suck it up with them. Some find a way. It's truly unfortunate that young people are judged so often by so many for so long.

    As an anecdote, my three-piece suit wearing English teacher thought it was funny to whack me on the top of my head with a stack of papers when I made a comment about Per Hansa's death in Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth".

    "You finally said something intelligent!"

    Isn't that just hilarious? I have actually since taught that novel. Some students said it changed their perception of life entirely. I didn't need to mock anyone in the process. He was an award winning teacher. Go figure.

    We have to face the unpleasant reality that too many teachers, for whatever reason, are not deeply inspired and motivated to deal with the 1001 differences among students every day. Thank goodness for the ones who do.

  6. Off topic:

    Tomorrow the hilarious and powerful John Oliver charter school piece will celebrate its one-year anniversary (it was simultaneously broadcast on HBO, and posted on YouTube on August 21, 2016.)

    The YouTube video of this video on track to hit 8 million Views either some time today or tomorrow, so in honor of this anniversary and the 8 Million-View milestone, here it is again:

  7. This is a really fascinating topic to me. I teach beginning ESL most of the time, and my biggest challenge is getting newcomers to speak. It could be about personality, but it isn't always.

    A lot of my students come from school cultures in which participation is actively discouraged, sometimes prohibited. A lot of them don't know what to do when faced with me. They've studied English in which no one spoke English. For my money, I can't imagine how you learn a language that way.

    I do try to be sensitive to people who are hopelessly shy, and I do try to get them to speak in ways they'll find less threatening. But I also see kids who speak in whispers to me who are then very loud conversing in their native languages.

    It's the perpetual challenge, to me at least.

  8. The author of the article brought up an important point when she said teachers need to remember that "...when you’re teaching, you’re not teaching yourself." Thinking that everyone learns the way you do is a really key mistake made by some teachers.

    It's significant that she refers to herself as "WhateverHerNameIs", indicating her feeling that she's not seen by her teachers as a unique individual, and which may be more common for the quiet students that perhaps teachers don't notice so much.

    I taught French and Spanish and I always used participation points, but the way I did it was to give points for volunteering. The idea is if they're volunteering, they're staying engaged. Quiet students get used to raising their hand, and students who aren't as good at the writing, which is more often tested, (deservedly) help their grade. Key to this is that they don't have to have the right answer to get the point, I never belittle or am critical of answers, they get points just for raising their hand, even if I don't call on them, and I try to call on different people each time.

    With French and Spanish, it's important that they pronounce well from the beginning or it's much more difficult to ever sound good, so at the beginning I have to make sure that everyone practices, but I have a unique and I think very innovative way to teach pronunciation as a skill (in French, pretend an "r" is an "h", in Spanish, pretend a "d" is a "th" and an "r" is a "d" as examples, so it's not on them to figure it out or just naturally "be good" at it. Using a technique called "TPR" at the beginning before I actually try to get them to speak was also helpful.
    (I can't speak to ESL, because teaching English speakers French or Spanish in an artificial environment is not like teaching speakers of many languages who are living in the target culture.)