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Quiet in the Language Classroom

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Our first guest post below is by Jessica Peterson. Jessica is an English Language Fellow working at Rajamangala University in Chiang Mai Thailand.  Her previous experience includes time as a Fulbright English Language Assistant and high school ESL teacher.

An Introverted Teacher Reflects on Language Learning

As both a reader and an introvert, when I first came across Susan Cain’s (2012) book Quiet, I was intrigued.  Cain manages to take her subject of introversion and explain it in a way that not only is illuminating but also challenges the ways in which we often subtly favor extroversion.

Although textbooks on language learning generally note that every personality type has its own strengths when it comes to developing proficiency in an additional language, it can be tempting for a language teacher to see extroverts as model language learners.  Even as an introvert, I have found myself noting appreciatively the students who were outgoing and always willing to interact with others or speak up in class.

Of course, those students—and their particular proclivities and skills—should be appreciated!  The problem is that sometimes we do so to the extent that we fail to give equal attention and value to what our introverted students bring to the classroom.

For me, Cain’s book was a probing reminder to reflect on the way I structure my classroom and create student interaction.  I do want my students to use language and to work together.  However, I also want them to feel comfortable and to have time to be quiet.  As I have thought about this, I have come to a few realizations about what I want my classroom to look like.

1.  I want it to be structured.  It’s always been important to me that my classes follow a general pattern and that each class’s agenda is posted and discussed with students.  This helps introverts know what to expect and prepare themselves mentally for activities.  Because introverts generally need more thinking time, this is crucial.

2.  I want to use group work.  At the beginning of Cain’s book, I found myself wondering if I was doing all my introverted students a huge disservice by regularly using group work.  In the past few years, I’ve come to have an increased appreciation for group work or cooperative learning, especially after reading Elizabeth Cohen’s (1994) great book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom.  I was reassured to find later in Quiet that Cain had interviewed Roger Johnson, one of the foremost experts on and proponents of cooperative learning.  He suggests that authentic group work (i. e., tasks that require collaboration as opposed to tasks merely done with others) can actually be empowering for introverted students.  The smaller setting and characteristics of cooperative learning, such as positive interdependence and individual accountability, provide a safe place for those students to share ideas and interact while also helping extroverted students get to know and appreciate them.

3.  I want to give “thinking time.”  Introverts need to be able to reflect on their answers and contributions to class.  I remember sitting in classes as a student mentally formatting and reformatting comments I wanted to make—many of which I never said because by the time I was satisfied with them, the discussion had moved on.  To allow introverted students time to think, I use strategies such as Think-Pair-Share, give time for journaling or sustained quiet reading, or sometimes just make everyone sit quietly for a moment before accepting any answers or starting a discussion.  Even students that are not introverted can benefit from that quiet and the reminder that it’s important to listen well to communicate effectively.

I believe that some of my strengths as a teacher come from my introversion.  I need to believe the same about my students and create a space where they have room to breathe, to reflect, and to sometimes just be.

Jessica Peterson

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