Would I like a quiet classroom full of students who are on task? Of course I would. But is that what is best for my kids? I no longer think so.
When I am speaking, during silent reading time, or during a test, I expect my students to remain quiet and respectful. There should be no talking—period! But when they are doing an assignment, I’ve stopped shushing them. I’ve stopped expecting complete silence while they work. And honestly, it has been hard for me.
After all, when they are quiet, I can assume (perhaps wrongly) that they are working. I also feel like I’m maintaining control—and I really like to be in control. When they are allowed to talk freely, I can’t always be sure who’s talking about the assignment and who’s talking about what they did last weekend. Not only that, as the period progresses, so does the noise level. And that can be hard on my nerves. It’s hard not to shush my students, but it’s totally worth it. Here’s why…
1. They learn self-management.
By allowing my students to talk freely during their work time, I run the risk that they will spend the whole time socializing. If they do, they will have homework. They know this, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for them to avoid distraction or limit discussions to the topic at hand. Still, learning to manage distractions and assert the type of self-control it takes to buckle down and get to work, especially when you have other options, is an important life skill. Some kids learn this the hard way when they get tired of having extra homework or when they get a late grade.
It’s a lesson worth teaching. After all, most adults don’t work in a controlled environment with a supervisor shushing everyone into submission all day long. Even teachers have to (mostly) avoid the temptation to talk to our besties during our planning time when we should be grading. So, I let my kids talk. I monitor them, and when they have veered too far off track, I encourage them to get back to work. But when it comes to chitter-chatter, I don’t wield a heavy hand. I let my students make a choice about how they will spend their work time in class and then live with the consequences of that choice.
2. They have great discussions.
Obviously, when kids are allowed to talk while working on an assignment, they are going to be sharing and comparing answers—but that can be a good thing. Again, I have to monitor to be certain one student isn’t just mindlessly writing down the answers from another, but that’s rarely the case. Instead, I find them sharing and discussing their answers—sometimes debating, sometimes getting excited about a shared discovery or idea, sometimes puzzling it out together. Collaborative learning doesn’t have to be an elaborate project. Sometimes it can just be a few friends talking about what they are learning.
3. They open up.
The great (and sometimes not-so-great) thing about talking is that it often leads to more talking. While as a rule I want my students to maintain reasonable focus on the task at hand, sometimes a discussion about theme or character motivation or conflict, can lead to deeper, more personal discussions. Sometimes I jump in, asking questions, directing the conversation. Other times, I just let them talk. Either way, open (sometimes guided) conversations help me know my students better, and it allows them to get to know one another.
4. They make friends.
Perhaps the best part of allowing open discussions in my classroom is that I get to see friendships develop between kids who didn’t know each other before or who might not otherwise be friends. A lot of kids won’t go out of their way to strike up a conversation with someone who’s not a part of their usual crowd. Other kids don’t have a usual crowd. But when they are allowed to talk freely in class, I find my students are more apt to be friendly, to reach out. Likely, these friendships don’t transcend the borders of my classroom. Still, for a child who is lonely or feels invisible at school, something as minor as talking about a book or idle chit-chat with a friendly classmate can make a huge difference in their whole day.
5. They laugh—a lot.
Sometimes the hilarity actually has something (at least marginally) to do with the assignment. Sometimes not. But kids need to laugh.
There is a growing mental health crisis among teenagers in this country, and while there is no single cause, technology is likely a primary culprit. Today’s kids spend less time socializing with friends in person than previous generations, and studies show that an over-reliance on electronic communication leads to increased mental health problems. So, if I can offer them a little time and space in my classroom for communication and levity, you better believe I’m going to do it.
6. They are better able to quiet down when the time comes.
Sometimes it takes a minute. They want to wrap up their conversations. They are still debating, still laughing, still trying to finish their work. But once we transition to a class lecture or quieter work, they are okay with that. They’ve had a chance to talk, and they know they know that they’ll get another chance soon. The day is balanced.
Allowing my students more time to talk freely has been extremely rewarding. But it’s not without its challenges. I must continually monitor them to be sure conversations stay class-appropriate and to be sure they do get some work done. I also have to let go of my own preference for quiet and my tendency to want to have total control over my classroom. In addition, I must be mindful of my students who don’t thrive or work well amid too much chatter, so I offer students who want a quiet place to work the option of taking their assignment out in the hall.
A “shush-free” classroom isn’t necessarily for every teacher. But for me, the chance to get to know my students and see them get to know one another and the chance to bring some lightness and laughter into their days has been totally worth it!
This article was submitted by a teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.