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Emma McDonald: The New Teacher Advisor

Managing
Student Talking


It used to be that when students were learning in the classroom, silence reigned. Children were expected to sit still, sit silently, and do their work independently. With the onset of collaborative learning groups and hands-on learning activities, the lines of when students can and cannot talk have become blurred. So, how do you manage the talking going on your classroom without stifling creativity and learning?

The first thing to determine is when talking is appropriate in your classroom. Is it okay for students to talk while you're giving instruction or directions? What about when students are working on assignments? Do you mind if students talk while doing independent work, or is it only acceptable during pair and group activities? It's important to sit down and think through your preferences. I, personally, like a chatty class -- to a point. I do not appreciate talking while I'm teaching or giving directions. If students talk quietly while they are working, however, I don't mind -- as long as the work is accomplished. What are your expectations about talking in the classroom? Be specific when determining what is and is not acceptable to you. That will make it easier to communicate those expectations to your students.

Secondly, set the ground rules about talking. Let students know up front when it is okay to talk and when it is not okay to talk. Be sure to give them specific guidelines about talking times. For example: Students may talk quietly when working on class assignments. The noise level should not get above x level. One teacher I know told her students that if she said her name in a normal tone of voice and no one heard, they were talking too loud. What do you mean by "quietly"? Give examples for students of what is and is not acceptable.

In my classroom and in workshop presentations, I use a concept I like to call, My Time/Your Time. During My Time (teacher-centered time), students should be focused on me, listening, and taking notes as needed. My Time includes lesson instruction, giving directions, and times when I'm addressing the class as a whole group.

Your Time refers to student-centered time. During group work, class activities, and class assignments, students are allowed to talk quietly as long as they get their work completed. If the work is not getting done, then the privilege is gone for the day and they can try again tomorrow. I usually stress to my students that I try to teach in short increments (usually 10 minutes or so) and then move to a class activity. That makes them more willing to stay quiet and focused during My Time -- when they know that in just a little while they'll have the chance to talk.

Third, use a consistent signal or set of signals to bring student focus back to you. When we allow talking in our class, very often it will get out of control. That is only natural. As human beings, we are very social creatures. We enjoy talking and sharing with others. As everyone begins to talk, the noise level increases until everyone is yelling. Just think about the last restaurant you went to. As more and more people sit to eat (and talk) the noise level increases. Using a signal keeps you from raising your voice and adding to the racket.

I have two signals that work best for me. The first is the quiet signal. Raising my hand in the air is a sign to students that they need to stop what they are doing (including talking) and focus on me. I also keep a small dinner bell in my pocket. When it gets too loud in the classroom, I ring my bell as a way of saying "quiet down." That helps students know it's time to get quiet, but they don't have to stop talking altogether. If everyone continues to talk loudly, I use the quiet signal and take a few moments to remind them of my expectations. Whatever signal(s) you decide to use, explain them fully to the class and practice a few times to help everyone understand how to respond appropriately. Also, be sure to use your signal(s) consistently.

Finally, monitor, monitor, monitor. There are two things that ensure our students will let themselves get out of control -- they are human beings and they are young. Do not expect that students only will talk about the lesson, class assignment, project, or other school related topics while you sit back at your desk doing paperwork or grading. It won't happen. As soon as they feel you are out of earshot, numerous topics will appear into the conversations around the classroom. Instead, while students are working and talking, walk around and listen to what is being said. That will help you notice which groups are more focused on the discussion of last weekend, movies, and school gossip than on their work.

Drop in on the conversation and give a gentle nudge toward the assignment. Ask questions such as, "How's it coming?," "What have you done so far?," or "What is one thing you have learned in this activity?" Don't ask, "Do you have any questions?" because invariably you'll get a quick reassurance from the students. Then, as soon as you leave, they're back to their previous conversation. Instead, ask questions that make the group/pair focus on the work at hand. Lean in to let them know you are paying attention. It is amazing how quickly the conversation changes once they notice you're listening.

While a little bit of extra-curricular talk is okay, we want our students concentrating on their work. Also, when you notice the work is not getting completed, it's time to put a halt to the talking. Let everyone know they've lost their privilege for the rest of the day, but they'll get another chance tomorrow.

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