Saturday, November 28, 2015

they just won't stop talking

One of the most common complaints of teachers is that their students just won’t. stop. talking. Students aren’t trying to be naughty or disrespectful, they just chat. And chat. And chat. This is a management challenge that frustrates teachers at best.

One of my favorite “teacher books” is Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead by Jim Burke.  It is a collection of letters that Jim Burke and a new teacher, Joy, teaching down the hall from him, wrote throughout Joy’s first year of teaching. Burke had told Joy that if she had any questions, just ask. And ask she did.

In September, Joy wrote to ask about how Jim manages a class of 35 students that won’t stop talking. Jim provides a perspective of how intrusive behaviors in the classroom require teachers to ask why and sometimes that causes teachers to have to make hard choices in order to address needs that are not being met in the classroom. He references Frank Firpo, a master teacher in his school, and what he believes students need: comfort, safety, control, tradition, friendship, nuturance, recognition, success, independence, variety, curiosity, enjoyment.

A reflection on a management issue, such as talking, can begin with a reflection of the above values. In what ways does your classroom provide structures for these needs of students? Are there ways that classroom environment, instruction, and assessments could better support these needs? Specifically, Jim prompts teachers to think about these structures:
  • Are the rules clear? Are they consistently enforced?
  • Are there consequences for inappropriate behavior? And rewards for appropriate behavior
  • Do you talk with those that are the chattiest? What might be going on? If they need attention, can setting aside time to connect with them help?
  • Are the tasks of the class appropriate for students’ content knowledge, skills, and interests?
  • Do you have assigned seating? If so, can it be improved?
  • Can you make an agreement with student(s) with rewards and consequences for specific behaviors?
  • Have you tried exit slips to get a sense of how things are going from students?
  • How can you use student talk to support learning?

It would make life so much easier if there was a simple answer to the question of how to get students to stop talking. If only! There isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a simple trick to try. But reflecting on the above questions is a good place to start.
Burke also provides an action planner in the appendices of the book. As part of the process of determining how to solve an issue in the classroom, Burke suggests the following steps. While it is in the context of students’ talking as the concern, these steps can be applied widely for teachers (and students!) when a problem needs solving.
  1. Define the problem.
  2. Generate a list of possible causes.
  3. Describe the desired behavior or outcome (and why).
  4. Identify possible obstacles to success, such as knowledge, skills, stamina, adaptability, elasticity, commitment.
  5. Determine necessary resources (people, materials, facilities – not lessons or information) to help students make necessary changes.
  6. Identify the necessary knowledge – both for you and the students – to help students succeed.

I’ve used this process to help in a variety of ways in my teaching. Most of the time, I’m successful in implementing a change for the better. When I’m not, it usually is an indication that I haven’t thought of all the causes, obstacles, and resources needed to make a change. Give this a try – see if the process works for you and your students’ chattiness!

Reference: Burke, J. (2006). Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.