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In my class, I ask open-ended questions—sometimes I even call on students who don't have their hand raised—and I put students in groups and pairs to encourage participation. But sometimes my students still struggle. One student in particular, Anise, never participated or raised her hand in class, and I was quick to slot her as a student who just wanted to make it to June. But one day, halfway through the school year, Anise came to see me during her lunch break. When no one else was around, she seemed much more curious about the subject matter. She asked questions, she listened to my answers, and we had a thorough conversation related to the class curriculum. Who was this girl?
The next class, I tried to spark the same curiosity from Anise but I received a mumbled, monosyllabic response. I sought out Anise's mom for more insight, and she said her daughter had always been quiet in class. That's when I had a light-bulb moment. If Anise "had always been that way," she likely felt like her insights weren't important enough to share with the class. I needed to fix that, but I knew it wouldn't happen immediately. I designed a four-step process to get me to the result I wanted and Anise needed.
Further reading: Mindfulness Activities to Reduce Stress
When I asked my students what kept them from participating, I got the usual responses: I don't know the answer; I hate being wrong; Someone else knows a better answer; I wasn't prepared. Noticing that these reasons centered around the concept of failing, I led a discussion about why it's acceptable to not be perfect. I shared the story of Ragish and the school egg drop contest. On the day of the event, in front of the entire school, Ragish's egg cracked wide open when he dropped it. Instead of moving on to the next student, the teacher judging the contest suggested that Ragish do some reading and try again the next day, which he did—and then the next day and the next after that. Finally, his project ended up among the top five champions. He eventually took that lesson in bouncing back from failure to MIT and then to Khan Academy, where he now works.
Once I knew that the fear of failure was keeping my students from participating, I began demonstrating subtle failures in class. I gave the wrong fact, acknowledged my "mistake," modeled how to resolve the situation, and moved on. This removed the fear associated with being wrong and gave my students permission to make mistakes. I transformed my classroom into a safe space for trying, failing, and trying again. I could almost see students' relief as they realized that if their teacher made mistakes, they could too.
I knew I needed to reset students' expectations for in-class discussions, and they had to stop limiting themselves by thinking the only way to participate was knowing the right answer. As a class, we reviewed our policy for maintaining a safe, collaborative space and came up with the following rules:
To further encourage participation, I challenged my students to choose one of the rules they've struggled with and focus on it over the next few days. When my class had these rules and techniques at the top of mind, conversations became more respectful, supportive, and in-depth, and my students were more comfortable participating.
In the past, when my class hasn't responded well to the above tips, I turn to using a less direct way for them to participate. I have my students log in to Twitter (using either their own account or a class account), and use a unique hashtag to participate in the conversation. This can be done via class computers or tablets, and allows students to ask questions and comment without feeling like their interrupting, or front and center of, the class. If your students are too young for Twitter, you can set up a shared Google Doc and apply the same process. If you don't have technology that's easily accessible to your classroom, allow your students to submit anonymous questions on paper. As you answer the questions and discuss, build the confidence of your class by assuring them that their questions are valid and great conversation starters. This will help to reinforce the mentality that "there's no such thing as a stupid question" and your class will be more likely to ask questions and discuss out loud in the future.
Further reading: How to Regain Classroom Control
After several months of following these steps, our class discussions became less about how many students raised their hands and more about a shared learning experience. I had succeeded in my goal to encourage participation, but I had also grown as a teacher. I learned a lesson I should already have known: don't expect something from students that they don't know how to give. If you want your students to participate, you have to show them how.