We, as special educators, are consistently dealing with students who have been told they’re wrong, and they’re behind. They often get teased by other students. Many have struggled in school since the beginning, watching others learn to read, or write, or multiply, as they themselves struggled to master these skills. As a teacher who works in the inner city, my students also consistently see those around them, and those who look like them, fail. Many go home to unstable environments.
Because of this, I have always worked to create an accepting and positive atmosphere in my classroom. This year, I have succeeded in encouraging student voice better than I ever have.
Students feel more comfortable asking and responding to questions and my interactions with them have been more positive and rewarding as well. This has, of course, taken a lot of effort and support. Some of the key things I’ve done differently that have been successful are:
1) Praise the effort, not the answer.
This is a lesson I took out of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Kids Will Talk (if you haven’t read it, I greatly encourage it). I always thank students for their participation, regardless of the answer. If students answer correctly, I still stress the effort over the correctness of the answer. I also consistently praise students for doing things that show they’re thinking, such as looking back in their reading for an answer, even if they fail to find that answer.
2) Take a seat!
I spend a lot of my time sitting with my students. I have a stool in the front of the room and whenever I transition the class into discussion I sit on it. This subtle change affects the power dynamic of the classroom immensely. All of the sudden, I’m not the all-knowing teacher, but a participant in the discussion with them.
3) Use Accountable Talk.
I have Accountable Talk sentence frames posted in my classroom. There are sentence frames for agreeing, adding on, disagreeing, and clarifying. Students use these to respond to one another during whole group discussion. I almost never repeat student responses, as I expect students to listen and respond to one another. At the beginning of the year, this meant a lot of repeating, but now my students respond to one another without specific prompting.
4) Support small groups.
I build in multiple forms of small group support prior to whole group discussion. This takes the form of think time, in which students spend 1-2 minutes thinking (no talking!) about a question posed; turn and talk in which they search for an answer with a partner; think-pair-share which first gives students time to think independently before sharing with a partner before sharing with the class.
I have also worked closely with the Speech Therapist at my school, sending her lessons a week before and having discussions (in person or via email) about specific student progress and struggles. This collaboration has been a huge part of the success of the class.
5) Provide student choice.
In order to assess students in a unit, I always give them choices about what they want to do. I create a tic-tac-toe board of assessments that correspond with different learning styles. This gives students the ability to choose their assessments but assesses the same skills and ensures that they work with different learning styles to reinforce material.
Do you have other ideas to share? If you try any of these things, le me know how they work out for you.