I have been rethinking my policy towards participation in class. My policy has always stated that students need to find some way to add to the class discussion. I tell them that they should plan to speak at least once during class. When I observe other faculty teaching, I look for the level and quality of participation in their classes. However, as in many other cases, my own experience as a parent has led me to question my long-held beliefs about my approach to participation.
Last year during parent-teacher conferences, my daughter’s teacher told me that I had a bright child who has a lot to offer the other students in the class, but she rarely raises her hand and, when called on, talks only in a soft, barely audible voice. At home, I would never describe my middle daughter as shy, but I know her public persona is reserved. Later, I asked her about why she does not like to raise her hand in class. She responded with, “I just don’t.”
I began to seek ways to encourage her to participate more. I took the teacher’s wonderful suggestion to bring her to art museums so she could see imperfections in the paintings. I explained that it is okay to be wrong sometimes, and that in many instances there isn’t even a “correct” answer. The artists took a chance, tried something new, and the risk of participating paid off.
That was my project for last year. It’s now fall again, and her new teacher already has taken me aside to tell me that my daughter should really make an effort to participate more. I have begun to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In this book, Susan Cain discusses the outsized value we place on extroverts. I am not finished with the book, but she’s already has introduced me to powerful introverts and promises techniques to teach children to act as “pretend extroverts” in order to function better within an extroverted culture.
Am I part of the problem in helping our society devalue the qualities of introverts? This semester, I introduced a new line to my syllabus. I indicated that, if students do not feel comfortable participating in class, they should speak to me about other ways they can contribute. I’ve already had some students send me links before class on related topics that I can use in class. I have also noticed that, though some students will not raise their hands, they are more willing to talk when I call on them. I have started calling on students more often, though I was a bit uncomfortable doing this before my policy change. In small groups, I now encourage some of the quieter students to lead.
I think my acknowledgement that not everyone is eager to speak up has allowed me to connect with students that previously may have been overlooked. I’ve also stopped pushing my daughter to participate in class. Her writing, it turns out, allows her voice to come through. Maybe, at this point in her life, it is a more meaningful way for her to communicate. How should we, as educators, define meaningful participation in our classes?
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