Let the Kids Talk

When I’m outside of school, I like to be quiet. I like to listen to my family, my friends, vinyl records, and more, but I like to be quiet.

At school, I don’t always get to be quiet. Teaching, particularly at the middle school level, requires a fair amount of talking: setting expectations and boundaries, delivering content or support, responding to questions, and sharing with colleagues. Educators talk at school. Even though I enjoy being quiet at home, I enjoy engaging with the students and adults who show up for school every day.

You know who else likes to talk at school? Students.

All of them. Even the ones who seem shy or quiet. They are often just looking for the right setting or the right people to share their thoughts.

You know who doesn’t get to talk enough at school? Students. In many cases, the quest for compliance and control in schools and classrooms can stifle meaningful opportunities for students to express themselves, their ideas, and their learning.

Quiet in school can be important and valuable. Quiet spaces can help students reflect and process. But quiet for the sake of quiet and not for intentional learning is not helpful and is sometimes harmful to student learning.

Not all talk is created equal at school either. Students shouldn’t be left to figure out how to effectively communicate with each other without opportunities for meaningful skill development. Letting kids talk shouldn’t look like a free for all in a classroom, but an experience where the  established structure and required communication skills allow students to more fully express themselves and their learning. It should feel like a place where students can confidently share their ideas and experiences without fear of poor treatment or ridicule.

The structures and practices are often simple.

Partner sharing, written reflection paired with verbal processing, teaching students how to ask great questions, modeling and teaching active listening concepts, using icebreakers to get different students talking to one another, and creating community agreements about appropriate interactions in a classroom, are a few basic but powerful ways to prioritize healthy student talk.

Hearing from students about how the opportunity to talk affects them is far more valuable than teacher perspectives alone. So I’ve asked two of my fabulous students to share some of their experiences about why the opportunity to talk matters to them.

After the insolation of covid, how does having the space to talk in class help you?

Ciarra: During quarantine I became more anti-social. Getting the opportunity to talk and express my thoughts allowed me to ask for the help I needed. Being alone with myself for a while really damaged my social skills. Now that I get the chance to interact with others, it’s easier to talk with a group of people when we have class discussions.

Kaylyn: After being isolated, it felt like I had to start from scratch with my social skills. Communicating my thoughts in a controlled setting has been really helpful. Having a safe space to practice has helped me contribute in all of my classes, and I’m more able to put my thoughts into the words I want.

How does talking in class help you express your learning?

C: It’s easier to articulate what I’m thinking when we have time to discuss topics in class. It’s easier to think more deeply after discussing with my classmates. I feel more comfortable expressing my thoughts without cutting myself short in a discussion.

K: When talking to peers, whether it’s a partner activity or an open class discussion, I've been able to hear different points of view and that has made me more open to others' thoughts and opinions. I'm better able to make new connections and see new possibilities with the material.

How does getting the opportunity to talk make you feel?

C: Getting the opportunity to talk makes me feel more comfortable in my ability to express myself. It makes me feel like I can understand my own viewpoints better, while also taking other opinions into consideration because I have more than one voice sharing now.

K: Having opportunities to talk to my peers has given a sense of community within the class and I feel closer to my classmates. This has made me more comfortable with sharing my thoughts, and I feel less anxious when I contribute.

How does talking in class benefit you beyond the learning environment? 

C: It helps me comfort other people more. It’s easier to be there for someone when I know how to talk to people. When I ask people how they are, I’m better at holding supportive conversations. I now know how to connect with people on a deeper level. 

K: I’ve found myself reaching out and seeking new connections more. I’m more comfortable sharing with others about how I feel because we have so many opportunities in our class to be open about our lives.

Taking the time to teach communication skills that kids need and providing the opportunities for healthy connection changes not only students’ academic futures but their social and emotional futures as well. Having the chance to talk at school makes kids' lives better.

Ciarra Bratton is an 8th grade student leader who is passionate about writing, helping others, and making people feel safe and welcome at her school. Kaylyn King is an 8th grade student leader who is committed to looking for ways to grow as a person and to make students feel comfortable at her school. Ryan Healy was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. At Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, WA he teaches classes focused on social and emotional learning and character development.

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