Teaching Opinion

Let Kids Express Themselves Rather Than Exasperate You

By David Ginsburg — March 12, 2011 2 min read
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I previously wrote about my student James whose selective sneezing--always during whole-group instruction, never during small-group activities--gave new meaning to attention-seeking behavior. Yet as strange as the manifestation of James’ need for attention was, the cause of it is quite common: teachers not calling on students when they want to be called on.

And students’ reactions to this are often far more disruptive than “sneezing.” I’m reminded of an exasperated elementary school teacher who asked me for help with a challenging student I’ll call Oscar. The principal warned me that Oscar had been a “problem” in previous years too, so I expected to see a real monster. What I saw at first, though, was a kid who entered class with high energy but channeled it in constructive ways. In fact, he was the first student to hang up his coat, sit down, and get started on the opening writing activity.

Then it happened. After a few minutes, the teacher asked for volunteers to share their responses to the writing prompt. Oscar’s hand shot up, but the teacher called on one of his classmates. The teacher then asked for another volunteer, and Oscar’s hand went up again. But the teacher chose someone else again. This played out a few more times before the teacher said, “We need to move on.”

And move on is exactly what Oscar did. Whether it was making faces to get laughs from classmates, swiping the stapler off the teacher’s desk, or chanting “this class is stupid,” Oscar was indeed a monster for the rest of my visit.

But the teacher had an “aha” moment when I shared my observations with her later that day, and she saw the connection between her failing to call on Oscar and him acting out. And now that she knew the cause of her problem, we were able to find a solution.

So what is the solution to the problem of kids acting out if you don’t call on them? Well, you can’t call on all students all the time. But you can give them regular opportunities to express themselves--and feel “heard” in the process--even when you can’t give them class-wide air time.

Here, then, with a tip of the hat (or wave of the handkerchief) to Oscar and James, are a couple of ways to let students express themselves rather than exasperate you:

  • Give students a chance to write down their responses to a question, while you circulate to acknowledge what they’ve written. (Instant response devices can be a good alternative if you have an interactive whiteboard; another option is to give students mini whiteboards to write their responses on and hold up for you to see.)
  • Give students, in pairs or threes, a few minutes to share their responses with each other. (This is akin to the Think and Pair stages of the Think-Pair-Share cooperative discussion strategy.)

Image by Avava, provided by Dreamstime license

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