by Heather Rocco, Member of The Educator Collaborative
The Quiet Ones: Introverts in the Classroom
I was a quiet kid. At school I did not often raise my hand to participate in class discussions. I preferred working alone to working in groups. I loathed the noisy cafeteria where large clusters of kids gathered around long tables and shouted their conversations at one another. At recess I chose to sit on the swings rather than participate in a game of kickball. No one could force me to talk while I swung like a pendulum on the playground, but waiting in line to kick a ball required lots of chatter with those who were also waiting. When a school day required hours of group work or lots of noise, I found it difficult to function, much less learn.
For many years I berated myself for what I thought was my social awkwardness and shyness. I admired people who could walk into any room and own the crowd with their humor and charisma while I found it painful to start (and end) a conversation with one person. I saw my quiet tendency as a weakness, one holding me back from any number of personal or professional goals. In 2013, however, this mindset changed when I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012).
As I read Cain’s book, I recognized my introverted self all over its pages. Yes, I can spend hours engaging in rich conversations over topics I love, but I find myself drained after five minutes of banal small talk. Yes, I feel re-energized after a night at home with a cup of tea and a book, but I am exhausted if invited to a social event with colleagues after school. I felt like Susan Cain was writing to me, directly, offering me the reassurance I needed to be at peace with who I am and how I move through the world. This realization gave me permission to make some much needed changes to my life, including how I functioned in my professional world.
In 2013, I was still teaching in a high school classroom. Aside from the many personal enlightenments, Cain’s book prompted me to think about how I was attending to my introverted students. In Quiet Cain states, “The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the rest of their lives, but too often what kids need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself.” This statement resonated with me. I was an introverted educator designing a learning environment that promoted what Cain refers to as the “extroverted ideal.” My classroom required students to do lots of talking. We participated in whole–class discussions, small group discussions, partner discussions. We collaborated on tasks. We engaged in Socratic seminars. We were noisy learners. My introverted self often left the class period needing to recharge in a silent space (not easily found in a high school). I realized I needed to be more purposeful in creating a classroom that honored both my introverted and my extroverted students. Here are three ideas that worked for me:
Write, Then Talk.
One notable difference between extroverts and introverts is how they process their ideas. Extroverts need to talk as they contemplate ideas while introverts need to think about their ideas first. In my classroom, I was in the habit of “turn and talks,” which meant someone would pose a question, and I would immediately say, “Turn and talk with your neighbor about that for a few minutes.” Inevitably, students would turn to their partners, and the more extroverted of the two would start the conversation, leaving the more introverted student with less of an opportunity to consider the question. To make this practice more useful to the introverts, I would ask students to jot their ideas for a few minutes before moving into their partner or small group conversations. These notes might be full sentences, or they might be brief notes or sketches. The markings didn’t matter as much as the time students were allotted to process the idea. Often, I’d announce who should speak first. Sometimes we assigned Partner A and Partner B, so I’d say, “Okay, Partner B, you start the conversation.” Other times I would make rules like “the person whose birthday is closest to today speaks first” just to mix it up every now and again. The conversations were richer and more balanced when all students had the opportunity to gather their thoughts before talking.
Host Digital Discussions.
When the English department began piloting a learning management system (think Google Classroom or Schoology), many of us were completely caught off guard by one particular aspect of the digital platform – the message board. We were dubious about whether our students would write their comments in such a public way. I mean, why ask them to post comments when we could simply discuss the question/article/poem/passage in class? As the weeks passed, though, the most common statement I heard from teachers was “I didn’t know [insert student’s name] had such insightful things to say. He never speaks in class!” These message boards allowed introverted students to process and to share their ideas with the whole class in ways they may have not been able to do during a class discussion. The opportunity to compose digitally redefined how introverted students could participate in a discussion and enriched all the students’ learning in the process. These digital contributions have continued to expand as students record themselves either on audio or video and share their ideas these ways as well.
I will admit that I fell prey to the idea that in order to prepare students for the workforce, they must work in groups…a lot. For a few years in my classroom, every project was a group project, every presentation a group presentation, every activity a group activity. But when I read this Susan Cain statement, I paused to reconsider my persistent drive to make everything about groups. Cain asserts, “Introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation” (Cain 2012). Moving forward, then, I gave students the choice, whenever possible, to work alone or with a small group. Sometimes giving this choice meant I had to scale an activity to align with the number of people working on it, but sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes it meant that students could choose to work alone initially and then partner with another to collaborate later. Sometimes groups and individuals completed the same tasks. However, giving students this choice, to work in solitude or to collaborate, gave them a better opportunity to be innovative.
This list is rudimentary at best, but I hope it inspires you to think about those “quiet kids” and ways to balance the learning spaces for introverted and extroverted students. For more ideas, you should check out The Educator Collaborative Gathering session Natalie Croney, Josh Flores and I presented on this topic in the spring of 2019.