Thursday, July 16, 2009

Engaging an introvert in the classroom

This is not a scientific study. I'm just writing about classroom activities from an introvert's perspective.

Although many teachers noted my "lack of participation," there was one teacher who tried to help. He caught me one day after class.

"Why won't you talk?" he asked. I didn't know. I couldn't answer. There is no answer. It just doesn't come naturally.

"How about if you start out with saying just one thing a week?" I agreed, although I was skeptical that it would work.

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I walked home with tears rolling down my face, because I knew he cared. I didn't begin to speak more, but sometimes he called on me during class, giving me the floor so that I could enter the discussion. I remember the strange feeling of people listening to what I said. And for the most part, disagreeing. But that's another story.

You can't change the whole configuration of your class for one student, but it is meaningful to let him know you care; that you notice he's having a hard time.

Here are a few factors that make a difference:

  • Class size. An introvert may feel comfortable in a class of up to 10, depending on how orderly it is (see below). Anything bigger is difficult in terms of speaking. I mean, I can literally walk into a room and observe the number of people and decide right then that I will not be speaking. With groupwork, 5 is enough, if you really want everyone participating.
  • Classroom order. Jumping into conversation can be stressful, so turn-taking can make an activity seem safer for an introvert, as long as someone can say "pass" if he's not prepared to answer. If you are introducing new topics, don't expect to hear from the introverts, at least not right away. They need time to think.
  • Type of activity. This is probably obvious, but writing/reading assignments are much easier for an introvert than speaking activities. And speaking in groups is less threatening than in front of the whole class. When choosing activities and evaluating student participation, it's always important to have student-centered goals in mind. Is it really in their best interest to force them to do something a specific way, when alternatives could be arranged?
Here are some types of classroom activities and guidelines:

1) Ice-breakers

-The first question to ask yourself, the teacher: What is the goal of this activity?
-Try to choose activities that don't put someone on the spot. For example, there's one chair too few and the person who's left must say something about himself. This leads to some students showing off and others feeling humiliated. It's not a very good start for a group of people getting to know each other.
-Avoid questions that involve superlatives: "my favorite book," "my funniest memory," "my most embarrassing moment," etc. Again there is a pressure to show off and come up with the most interesting answer.
-Introverts are going to say something quickly to get out of the spotlight. They will not necessarily answer truthfully or sincerely.
-If you want students to get to know each other, try pairs work or more serious questions that require thought, but not necessarily embellishment.

2) General discussion

-Again, ask yourself, What is the goal of this activity? I honestly have a hard time thinking of a goal that couldn't be accomplished through other means.
  • Is the goal to evaluate mastery of the material? If so, students can do this in writing.
  • Is the goal to test a student's ability to form an argument orally? If so, students can do this in pairs.
  • Is the goal to test a student's ability to give a spontaneous reaction to ideas? Again, you could use pairwork, or you could use a timed writing period.
-See the factors above on class size and order, and recognize that this is an area in which introverts are not likely to participate much.
-If you still want to try, here are a few alternatives to get quiet students to speak: 1) Revisit the topic the next day, when those who process more slowly will have had time to prepare 2) After students have handed in a written response, call attention to someone whose writing was good but didn't share anything with the class. Perhaps this will give him enough confidence to speak up.
-*A cultural note on participation: Students from different cultures will have different ways of expressing that they would like to say something. They may raise their hand, call out, stand up, make eye contact, sit quietly, etc. I have had Russians refuse to raise their hands, and often stand up when they want to say something. Knowing about these customs, and making it a cultural lesson with a mixed class, will get your classroom environment off to a good start.

3) Group work
-Despite being quiet, introverts have a lot to say. They are fine working in smaller groups.

4) Oral presentations
Making presentations seems to be an element of the average school curriculum, but I wonder what percentage of adults really need to make oral presentations regularly? If they do, it is probably in their area of expertise and they manage quite well.
I remember in 7th grade English being forced to do oral presentations. I pulled mine off with a lot of props and slight nervousness. But I remember a few girls who stood at the front of the room in silence with crimson faces, managed to get out a few words, and were sent to the nurse's office to calm down. (I must note that these ladies had thriving social lives, and there was certainly nothing wrong with them in that department)

I have to ask...is it really necessary?

I'm not sure if making oral presentations affects introverts differently or not, because it is not really a form of interaction with people. In many cases you are simply releasing a flow of words that you have memorized. There are several skills affecting someone's public speaking ability, including appropriate use of language, coherency, clarity, ability to engage the audience, etc.

Techniques that make oral presentations easier are:
-memorization
-visual props

I love hiding behind a map or chart. Otherwise I fidget and feel like a child.

Here I have to make a point about language learning, which is that oral presentations do very little in demonstrating fluency. It is role-playing that is more of an indication. Oral presentations may indicate some range of vocabulary/grammar, and progress in pronunciation.
So, there you have it. A few things to keep in mind while teaching.

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