The silent class

Week after week and class after class, they sit silent.
When they are called on, they sit silent.
When they don’t understand something, they sit silent.
When they understand perfectly, they sit silent.
When they have no specific task, they sit silent.
When they want to say something to their friend, they whisper in the friend’s ear.

What on earth is going on with them? I wondered. I was tottering between frustration and anger. I asked their classmates in another class who are more talkative.

Ahh, they said. Jung-i byeong.

Jung-i byeong. It’s a thing. It’s “second grade of middle school disease.” Also known as puberty.

I try everything from easier tasks to pep talks. They sit silent.
They will read. They will write. They will listen. But they will not speak.

Is it the topics?

Okay guys, here’s a scrap of paper. Write down the topics you want to talk about in this class.

No, you don’t have to write your name.

No, you shouldn’t all write the same thing. I promise I will use everything.

I make a syllabus based on their topic requests. I let them think and write before they share. They sit silent. One shares. I ask another to paraphrase or ask a question. They sit silent.

Okay, it isn’t the topics. What is it?

And then two things happened.
First, one student told me she didn’t understand how she was to prepare for the topic that week so she didn’t do her homework. Ah, I thought. Good question. I wrote my number on the board. If you have trouble understanding, contact me. Ask me.

Then in the next class I did something a little immature. I decided not to talk to them either. So I wrote the first discussion question on the board: “Do you get enough sleep? Ask two people.”

I asked for a show of hands – they all said they didn’t get enough sleep. I asked them to clear their desks. I set the timer for five minutes. They all went to sleep. Five minutes later, I woke them up and wrote on the board, “How do you feel? Ask three people.”

I wrote on the board again, “Can you fall asleep quickly? Ask three people.” They talked. And the reasons came out naturally.
I asked for a show of hands afterwards and wrote the reasons on the board.
I tried a few more of the discussion questions – sometimes they answered very briefly and went back to whispering to each other, but other times some pockets of them talked for quite a while in English.

I ended with “What helps you go to sleep? Ask 2 people.” By the time I called out for ideas to put on the board, they were all chiming in: a dark room, silence, a teddy bear, singing to herself, studying, taking a shower, sleeping with a cat or dog, taking a walk, listening to music, a soft bed, a soft pillow, thinking, reading, doing something I don’t want to do, exercise, medicine, sleeping alone.
I asked them then to choose three of those ideas to try themselves and tell two people.

Then I asked them to write their ideas down. Next time I’m going to ask how it went.

The last thing I did was ask them to look through their homework and see if there is anything we didn’t discuss in class. If there is, tell it to one person.

2014-08-26 20.23.08

I was absolutely amazed at how well this class went compared to all their previous weeks. My (somewhat embarrassing) moment of childishness “Fine. if you’re not talking to me, I won’t talk to you either!” turned out to be the best thing I could have done. As a result, I discovered that they want to talk, even in English, just not in front of everyone and not TO ME. It’s the best result I could possibly have asked for.

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  • Hana Tichá  On September 4, 2014 at 1:31 am

    Another of your fantastic tweaks, Anne 🙂 Congratulations! It must have been a wonderful feeling, this triumph. I have the opposite problem, though. I have a class of 22 students so our conversation activities get pretty noisy at times. I always have to think of ways of calming them down. It drove me crazy until a colleague of mine told me earlier today that she finds her class too silent, and that she’d love to make them talk more (what a coincidence!). I think she’ll be pleased to hear your story 🙂

    • livinglearning  On September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

      Dear Hana,
      Thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment. I felt a bit stupid writing instead of talking, but I’m so glad I tried it. It reduced my stress about the class and helped me discover at least part of the problem. Their subsequent class went better than before.
      I’ve been wondering lately about question-driven conversation classes. I wonder what other ways I can encourage discussion.
      I hope you have good luck with your noisy class and your colleague finds strategies to get her silent students talking. I’d love to hear how she does it.

  • Matthew  On September 6, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Newbie CELTA Trainer and commented:
    A tale of teaching with a message about sensitivity, adaptability, and persistence.

    • livinglearning  On September 12, 2014 at 12:09 am

      I think this is the first time anyone has ever reblogged one of my posts, Matthew. Thank you for that and your comment.

  • annloseva  On September 14, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    I’m glad I’ve saved this post and eventually got back to it.

    I don’t teach teens and I wonder if this manifestation of puberty time is common here too..I guess maybe not. This is interesting to me. I can have cases of super quiet students at university (17-18 y.o.)… and they are most tiring for me… much more so than 12 hyperactive boys the same age.
    Incidentally, the quiet ones would talk to me rather than to each other…

    I’ve long felt like giving a silent class. I like the way you did it, and that it was a silent class for a silent group, not a silent class for an energetic group. It’s cool you found out the reason that girl didn’t do hometask, AND that she actually contacted you. This seems quite precious to me. I believe such problem is rather typical (it happened to me, but it was too late to encourage contact as the course was over..)

    One thing I find hard for sure is looking at blank faces.

    Thank you for the post, Anne!

  • Sing Better English  On September 16, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Gosh – that brings back memories of Japanese students who would only speak if they had the sentence absolutely, incontrovertibly, without question, perfect in their heads. I was teaching in the UK though, so different nationalities were mixed up together.

    I’d agree absolutely with Matthew. Your post is a true demonstration of sensitivity, adaptability, and persistence. Your students are lucky to have you. 🙂

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