Teachers—Help students balance class participation

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All teachers are aware of the problem of class participation. During whole-class discussions, some students are eager and participate frequently and excitedly—

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…whereas others avoid joining in unless called on and try to escape even then—

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Students with ASD are like all students who might fall into either of these categories, though the social challenges they may face may make things more difficult. Some kids may “over-share” because they don’t pick up on subtle social cues indicating to wrap up their thought. Others may shy away from contributing due to the overwhelming pace of other students’ conversation.

But this is not an issue just for students with autism. Neurotypical teachers and students can benefit from considering the balance involved in class participation. And teachers of inclusive classrooms in particular can help to support all students have a space to participate.

Jennifer Gonzalez has a terrific post on her blog, Cult of Pedagogy, about what she calls “fisheye teaching,” the trap teachers fall into during class discussions in which,

some students appear “larger” than others. They take up more energy and grab more of our attention, making the others fade into the periphery

This is the phenomenon of a teacher’s perception of what feels like a terrific class discussion, that in reality was dominated by only a few thoughtful, focused, on topic students. Those eager kiddos can cloud our view and prevent us from seeing the many students who did not participate.

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Gonzalez offers some great suggestions of “ways to balance things out,” getting the talkers to listen and the quiet ones to speak. In addition to these strategies, teachers can explicitly explore the balance of sharing your thoughts and holding your thoughts with the whole class. (See more on this Balance Challenge.) Here’s how:

1. TEACH students about jumping in, and holding back:

  • Jumping in is finding opportunities to contribute, sharing your thoughts with the group.”
  • Holding back means allowing others the space to speak, even if you have thoughts you could share.”

2. PRIME students for class discussion before beginning:

  • “If you’re the kind of person who usually jumps in, consider holding back to let others speak. Our discussion is strengthened by more perspectives.”
  • “Or, if you usually hold back, work to find places to jump in to add your thoughts to the discussion. We want to hear your ideas.”

3. MODEL the use of the language throughout the discussion:

  • “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Have I been jumping in or holding back in this discussion?’ I think I’ve been jumping in too much—I’ll hold back to let more students share their thoughts.”

4. ENCOURAGE students to give helpful feedback to one another:

  • “If you feel a classmate may have been holding back, invite her to jump in, but don’t put her on the spot.”

Over time, students can learn to better self-monitor, and the class can develop a shared language and understanding around the need for balance in class discussion.

Teachers can use different phrases according to what may click best with your particular group of students. Others have used “step up” and “step back,” and “pass the baton” and “grab the baton.”

And there are many other great ways to structure class discussions to allow for all voices to be heard.

  • Community Circle allows all students an opportunity to respond to questions, without the pressure of putting them on the spot. (From The Strategic Teacher by Silver, Strong & Perini)
  • Word Sneak uses key words written on notecards to encourage 100% participation, with support for students who are reluctant to participate (inspired by Jimmy Fallon’s game on The Tonight Show)

And I feel strongly that if a shy student attempts to participate and struggles, you’ve gotta give em an out.

—Aaron

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