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Learning Curve

Quiet wisdom

Strategies to empower introverted students to excel
New York Teacher

The odds are good that the last time you attended a professional development workshop, you were asked to “turn and talk” to the person sitting next to you. 

How did you react? If you consider yourself to have an extroverted personality, you may have welcomed the opportunity to converse with a stranger. But if you consider yourself to be introverted, you may have felt awkward or uncomfortable.

The same is true in our classrooms. But even as student collaboration and group work are embraced in the modern classroom, some teachers are exploring the idea of redefining introversion as a source of strength.

Ann Neary, who taught English at DeWitt Clinton HS in the Bronx for 11 years, remembers experiencing a revelation while reading the work of a particularly quiet student.

“She was a genius, and I was blown away because she never spoke,” Neary says. “We live in a really noisy world, and we value people who speak up. But when we have kids who always want to talk, who do they take the voice away from?”

In her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain contends that introverted students need privacy and autonomy to reach their potential.

“One thing that resonated with me about Cain’s book was the way in which schools propagate the extrovert ideal — the idea that in order for a student to be successful, they must be gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight,” says Bryan Miltenberg, a teacher of humanities and music at Scholars’ Academy in Rockaway Park, Queens. “We need to shift into a mindset in which verbal participation is one way among many to demonstrate mastery of material.”

Alison Schmitt, who teaches English language learners at PS 314 in the Bronx, agrees. “There are other ways for students to show what they know that do not include speaking out loud, like drawing or sketching, nonverbal gesturing and quick jots, or journal writing.”

How can teachers find a balance between respecting the quiet nature of introverted students and encouraging them to share their ideas?

A host of strategies can give quieter students more time and confidence. If you’ve ever waited a minute or so before calling on someone in your class, for instance, you’ve probably noticed a few extra hands go up. “The kids with their hands up first are probably the extroverts,” says Michael Loeb, a science teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “Introverts need a little more time.”

In her high school English class, Neary experimented with a Socratic seminar in which her most extroverted students took notes as they listened to the discussion of introverted students.

“They were the only ones allowed to talk, and they didn’t feel overpowered because they were there with equally quiet people,” she says.

Teachers at PS 11 in Chelsea are taking these ideas a step further by joining Cain’s burgeoning nationwide network of “Quiet Schools,” in which educators work to foster an environment of inclusivity for all students and explore themes of “quiet leadership.”

“Our goal is to encourage talk and also value silence,” says Dawn Rosevear, a teacher and a “Quiet Ambassador” at the school.

Staff members at PS 11 participated in an assessment to learn more about their own temperaments and have been experimenting with ways to “make time for quiet time in the classroom,” Rosevear says.

When the school recently invited interested students to sign up for a “quiet lunch” period, 400 of the school’s 930 students jumped at the opportunity (which may not surprise you if you’ve ever sat through the noisy chaos of an elementary school lunch period).

During their professional development time on Tuesday afternoons, a group of teachers at PS 11 is exploring strategies for supporting introverted students — like the “think-pair-share” approach, in which students first think about a topic on their own before sharing ideas with a partner and ultimately with a whole group.

Thinking in terms of student engagement rather than participation, teachers have experimented with “silent dialogue,” in which students respond to one another’s thoughts on a particular prompt by writing back and forth on Post-it notes.

The PS 11 teachers also are grappling with how to measure whether these strategies are working with their quieter students.

“We’re working to honor their introverted temperaments and usher them into engaging more,” says Rosevear. “It’s about empowering them, not making them become extroverted.”

Related Topics: Pedagogy, Learning Curve