The Speaking of Students

Speech filled my classrooms. Some of it came from my mouth. But much of it came from students. And only some of their speech was the words they said. They complained about each other and talked about themes in literature. And as I listened, I learned more about students.

But sometimes what they didn’t say was even louder. When a student who was usually vocal contributed nothing in a round-table discussion, I listened. Did this student identify with the short story protagonist who struggled with self-harm?

I came to realize, though, that I had not been valuing another way students spoke. In fact I often disparaged this way of speaking. But I gradually came to see that students who rolled their eyes and crossed their arms were also sending me a message. Hair drooped over faces, feet tapping, shoulders slumped in hoodies, eyes averted—all these I had often taken as disrespect and mostly ignored. But I   had been losing opportunities. Each speech from a student, even a nonverbal—brings a chance to show care.

And so I started responding to nonverbal speech. In the hallway, I’d pull a student aside.

“You seemed so huddled up in your hoodie this morning,” I’d say. “Are you okay?”

Or after class I’d say to a student, “When I gave that assignment, I saw your eyes rolling. I’m curious. What were you thinking? I’d like to know.”

At lunch I’d sit in an empty seat next to the arm crosser. “You seemed upset during the discussion this morning. Do you want to talk about it?”

As I acknowledged their nonverbal speech, students opened to me. After all, I was continuing , rather shutting down, the communication between us. I discovered more about their thinking and their feelings. And I learned more about my teaching.

This new openness between students and me created more receptivity for learning. After all, no one likes to be ignored.

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