When I first started teaching, I was afraid to let my kids talk too much. Or too loud. Or too long. Or too “funny.” I was afraid that other teachers would think I didn’t have control over my classroom if they walked by and heard a lot of noise in the room. I guess I was afraid that I would lose control if my kids were too loud.
Once I gained my footing and my confidence in the classroom enough to look past the basic safety, academic, and management components of my day, I began to question the need for silence during many parts of the day.
Now I have to point out that I do understand the need for quiet and voice control in many situations at school. We need to be quiet in the hallways because we could disturb other classes if we are noisy on our way to lunch. We need to be quiet in special places like the library and computer lab because other people use these areas to study and they need quiet in order to concentrate.
But I had to ask myself, Why are we being silent during our morning work? Why are we being silent when we put our papers in our mailbox? There were times during the day when I realized I was demanding silence, even quietness, when it wasn’t exactly necessary for learning. In fact, the silence and quietness was possibly hindering their learning in some ways.
A few years ago, I was part of a team that studied the new English Language Arts College and Career Ready Standards for my school system. We discussed in detail the need for more rigorous vocabulary instruction, which I totally agree with. Our school uses a robust vocabulary program in which we teach wonderful words like confidence, ability, talent, wilting, and so many more. The students love learning and using these new words. But kindergarten teachers see so many students who don’t even know simple words. Words like friend, baby, help, above, below. How can we get these sweet kindergarten children to build a mental word bank with robust, meaningful words when they don’t even know how to express themselves in the simplest ways?
We let them talk. We let them talk a lot. Yes, it’s loud sometimes. Yes, the noise is busy. But in my experience the noise is helping them to become cool little citizens–and isn’t that our goal as teachers?
So I sat down in the quietness of my silent, coloring five-year-olds and asked myself this question: When can I let them talk more?
The first place that came to mind was “Morning Work.” How many of you get to work and walk down the hallway with a finger over your mouth, eyes darting side to side as you walk to your office? On Mondays, do you put your things away silently, without talking to your friends about your weekend? The things you did, the food you ate, and the places you went?
We don’t do that! Teachers don’t do that. We are very sociable. When I get to school each morning, I greet people with a “Good morning!” or “hey!”. I have to give a full, detailed description of my weekend activities to my friends. And I listen to them recount their weekend. We take turns speaking and listening without realizing it. Why wasn’t I teaching my kids to do that? Sure, I was reading stories to them and pausing every few pages to say something like “Turn to your partner and tell them why you think this is happening. What do you think will happen next?” But seriously? Do we do that? In movies? Does someone pause the movie every few minutes to say “Let’s stop and talk about what’s happening so far. All of the mustards find a ketchup and partner up. Discuss and then we’ll start back, okay? Now you be mustard, and you be ketchup…”
So I decided to start with real conversations in the mornings. I changed my morning routine from “Morning Work” to “Morning Activities.” I divided my students up into twos or threes and each morning after unpacking and greeting one another with “good mornings” and “heys”, they go to the board and find their morning activity, which could be playdoh, partner computers, reading and puppets, drawing, or–my favorite–home living.And, yes, they talk. They talk a lot. I listen to them and my heart feels content knowing that they are learning how socialize like a true community–and the bell hasn’t even rung yet. I do tell them to talk quietly, and we practice for a few days at the beginning of the year talking between a whisper and a yell. I have found that in the mornings, my students are very quiet. They talk about practice the night before, their bus friends from the morning, and what they had for breakfast (The home living conversations are the best- Girl: You be my son and sit here and rock this baby while I make supper. Boy: No, I’m a business man. I’ve got to go write some stuff at my office desk.).
Another time during my day that I found I could add some talking time was when someone came to my door to speak to me, or we had about two minutes before we needed to line up and be somewhere, or something was wrong with my projector/screen/radio/anything-and-everything and I needed two or three minutes to fix it. I used to play quiet mouse during this time, or say “Everyone on silent while I fix this.” But I have found that if I simply say, “Turn just your head and whisper in your friend’s ear for two minutes while I talk to this important visitor,” my kids actually turn and whisper to each other. I don’t have to police them and fuss at them for not being silent, and they get extra oral language practice.
A third time that I let me students talk is during creative writing time. Now I do understand that some teachers may disagree with me on this point and I’m totally okay with agreeing to disagree here. Teachers have different personalities and teach in different ways. Here is why I started letting my kids talk during writing workshop…I have found that the majority of my five and six year old children have had success with verbalizing their thoughts aloud before and during writing. If you come into my room during writing workshop, you may hear some of the following “noise”:
” Can you tell what this says?”
“Guess what I’m writing? My friend went to the beach with me last week. Look at us swimming here.”
“How do you spell polar? /p/…/o/…/l/…/r/”
“You should label your mom in that picture. I like it.”
And that’s what the kids are saying, not the teacher!
I could go into how we converse in morning work stations and in math…oh, math, my love!…but that in itself is another blog post for another day!
The point of letting my students talk is not to make school a more “fun” place, but it does make school more fun. The point is not to have to fuss less at my kids, although I direct them to lower their voices much, much less. The point–the reason–is to develop oral language and social skills, and that’s what my students are doing by using their words.
Let them talk! Preschool, early elementary teachers, parents of young and old: what other times can you think of to let them talk more? Share with us!
* I realize that there are times in our day and life when we are required to be silent. As the school year goes on, we “practice” being silent for things like tests, speeches, and even fire/tornado/lockdown drills. I have not found that the practice of letting them talk more has hurt their ability to be silent when I want them to. In fact, their ability to be silent and listen when Mrs. Givens has an important announcement seems to be enhanced. I wouldn’t be sharing this with you if I didn’t think it worked!;)