The students found their seats quickly. Flipping open their journals, they wrote in silence, glancing at a prompter on the board. I watched the teacher stop at each table, visiting with each student, whispering a question and listening intently to the response. It was so quiet, I couldn’t hear the whispered words, but there was something in each child’s upturned face that spoke to the importance of this time. I asked about it later. The teacher shared that they were discussing their ongoing projects. I knew, though, that something bigger happened in the interactions, a singular connection of student and teacher.
In another class, students were working in teams; low chatter provided the background noise. Nearby, I overheard two students talking about their strategy to thin their plants without pulling every plant out at once. They were nervous because the roots were tangled. Their mindful conversation was not imposed, but chosen. They had to communicate to do what needed doing. This was authentic and necessary use of voice.
Both of these scenarios speak to the power of student voice in the classroom, when it is used intentionally and purposefully. All too often, we as teachers default to using our own voice incessantly and not permitting the students to use it much at all, diminishing its power.
Early in my teaching at the middle and high school level, the predominant voice in the class was mine. Silent students were considered attentive, learning students. During a high school lecture, I used my best theater strategies and anecdotal stories not only to spin my lesson, but also to suppress student talking. The students were supposed to take heed and take notes, speaking only when asked a question.
The fear was, and still is, that student voices can easily become ‘out of control’, volume begetting more volume, until separate voices are no longer heard. The teacher puts the kibosh on the talking, with ‘the signal’ or the calling out of names. Or the teacher gives up, unable to control the volume. She talks over it.
Sounds can be deceiving though—quiet is not always good in a classroom and loud is not always bad. Not long ago, I heard a yelp from another classroom, followed by loud laughter and clapping. Assuming the worst, I hurried into the class to find all the desks cleared from the center of the room. Physics students were attempting a challenge involving an obstacle course, a bowling ball, and a stick. They were immersed in the activity and loving it. This was a reminder that it is all about the quality of the communication—about what is being said and heard concerning the work at hand.
Just down the hall, I walked past a silent class. All I could hear was the teacher’s voice. As I peeked through the glass I saw a class largely disengaged. Several had heads on desks, more than one had ear buds in use. Some were looking towards the window, while others became aware of me on the other side of the glass. They offered up a quick wave.
The point here is that there are diverse and effective ways that allow talk in the classroom. There is discussion, either teacher-led or student-shared, where information is given or strategies are discussed. But as with an orchestra, each voice must be purposeful and attended to by the listeners. There are paired or group activities where students team up to solve a problem or complete a project. In a productive classroom, these discussion times are critical to learning. And there can be the small conferencing—quiet conversations that connect the student with student and student with teacher in ways that build relationships, connections, and breakthroughs. There is even time for lecture—carefully prepared, relevant, and interesting.
There are the silent times, when the omission of voice is powerful and students can use another medium to express understanding. During those times, students can, working solo, get a lot done. But they are not quiet because they are quelled; rather they are thinking and concentrating. They are working and noticing the results. They are solving problems, and are totally immersed doing so.
As we wend our way through another year in our classrooms, we need to think about our mindfulness in planning activities that allow for the small communications, the separate conversations and the one-on-one dialogues, so that the classroom environment is both inclusive and productive. And we need to think about all the ways we can help ourselves and our students learn how to speak, listen, and choose words carefully during interchanges, rather than just filling the air.