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Empowering Students' Voices: Overcoming Fear of Expression

I remember sitting in my English class in high school, consumed by dread.

We were deep into a discussion about Orwell’s 1984. My teacher, Mr. Maddox, had a reputation for randomly calling on students. I was, in a word, terrified. I had read the book—twice, in fact. But speaking in public? You mean, out loud, in front of my classmates? The idea was enough to make me sweat.

And sweat I did. Especially when I saw Mr. Maddox swing around and point directly at me.

I’m not the first student to ever feel this way. Every day, students are forced to face their fear of public speaking. Getting up in front of the class and learning to express yourself in front of your peers is a valuable part of the school experience.

Students who don’t raise their hands are often labeled as “shy” or “introverted.” Unfortunately, that same quiet nature can also have a negative impact on their grades.

While speaking out loud in class has real educational value, punishing students academically for fear of raising their voice isn’t always the most productive approach. It almost certainly isn’t the best indicator of content mastery or understanding.

That’s why a lot of educators are beginning to rethink the concept of student voice. At the heart of that discovery: finding new ways for students to express their views, both in and out of class.

The quiet approach
Recently, more than 60 teachers, administrators, psychologists, guidance counselors and principals met at the Quiet Summer Institute in New York City. The goal, according to Mind/Shift, was to redefine what class participation means.

“Being present and connecting doesn’t have to take place through lots of speech,” Heidi Kasevich, an organizer of the institute, told Mind/Shift.

Kasevich created a curriculum for teachers to engage students without forcing them to speak in class. She based the curriculum off of Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

A core tenet of the book and the institute is how important it is to understand why a student is quiet and how to engage the student without putting them on the spot.

Erica Corbin, a Summer Institute participant, encouraged other members of her team to not only pay more attention to quiet students, but to investigate why they’re quiet.

By focusing more attention on introverted students, educators also can get a handle on extroverted students, she says.

Corbin offered the “W-A-I-T” approach. When students are overly boisterous, encourage them to pause and ask, “Why Am I Talking?”

On the flip side, for introverted students, as much as you can, encourage them to ask, “Why Am I Not Talking?”

“Personality might be some if it,” Corbin told Mind/Shift. “And we also might have kids who are quiet because they have been shut down.” There’re many reasons why students shut down, Corbin says, whether because of stereotypes, biases, poor home lives, or other issues. Your first task as an educator is to home in on the “why.”

Alternative approaches
The reasons why students choose to speak in class vary—that’s obvious. And so will how you choose to engage them.

Here are a few approaches to consider:

  • Encourage students to write notes to each other on pieces of paper to hang in your classroom. This allows students to have a dialogue without speaking out loud.
  • Let students express themselves through art—whether drawing, painting, or other forms of expression. If a picture says a thousand words…well, there you go.
  • The most introverted students are often among the best writers. Encourage less vocal students to engage with lessons through the written word and writing assignments.
  • For introverted students who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in front of large groups, put them in pairs or small groups to cut down on the anxiety.

And don’t overlook technology as a means to engage quieter students. Consider ways to incorporate social media, text messaging, and online forums or feedback tools into classroom discussions. Students don’t have to speak out loud to engage in meaningful conversations or dialogues with classmates or teachers.

What steps will you take this school year to engage less vocal students? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for new ways to include introverted learners in classroom conversations? Want to help students build the confidence they need to speak out in class? Consider setting up an online forum and portal specifically for classroom discussions.