Tolerating Chatter

Noise is one of the hardest parts of Project-Based learning for me. I love creating the projects; I love introducing them and watching the students eagerly take on the task. The conversation that starts, “Look what I found,” just makes me smile, as they engage with the information, beginning to collaborate with each other. It is the chatter that then so often starts that is always a challenge for me – chatter that is off-topic and seemingly distracting that always is a challenge for me. While my head knows that middle school students are social creatures and the breaks that they take can support their learning, often helping them to reconnect and remember more, because of the chance to be social. I know they need those breaks to make them feel happy and secure. But the “Old School Marm” in me always wants to clamp down, exert my authority and seemingly regain control over my students. So I am working on a balance.

This week, I introduced a research project on the role of the Executive Branch of government and had the students investigate the life and powers of the President and his cabinet, using www.whitehouse.gov. There is an amazing amount of information there, and I wanted them to follow their interests and instincts while still aiming for a general goal.  They eagerly set to work, silently at first, making their way to the website and beginning to investigate. After 3-5 minutes the conversation began, in whispers at first and then with increasing volume. Much of it was directly connected to their research, as they excitedly shared a new fact, pointed out a picture, discovered a tour of the White House. They were genuinely interested in what they were finding and in sharing it with their peers. Those are the times that make me glow! I love creating an experience that makes those kinds of interactions happen.

But then, within a few more moments, there were snatches of, “I wish it had been a snow day,” and “What are you up to this weekend?” My impulse is always to immediately intervene and call them back to the work before them. I so want to clamp down, forcing obedience to some ancient standard of what an engaged and focused student looks like. Intellectually, I know that desks in rows and silent, rote learning are not tools I want to use, but there are times when I find myself turning towards them, rather than away.

I struggle to accept, when it is happening right in front of me, that those times of reconnecting with friends, are important for the energy and learning of my students. They are not direct affronts to my authority, but instead are simply signs of middle school students being who they are. It really has nothing to do with me or the lesson, and it has everything to do with their social needs. Having listened to a presentation last week about the importance of accepting middle school students as social beings, this time, I took a deep breathe and just waited to speak. I wandered around the room, making my presence felt, but not taking control. Often the simply aspect of the teacher moving closer caused them to refocus, but not all of the time. I simply passed on, even if they were talking about unrelated topics.

I let this go on for about 5 minutes, as the volume slowly rose to one that felt too loud for work to happen. At that point, I told them that they needed to be silent for 4 minutes. I decided that rather than setting a long period of silence, I would set one that was achievable for them. They each know that they can stay quiet for 4 minutes, maybe not much more than that, but they can do 4. They immediately fell silent with absolutely no whispering or conversation of any kind. They took on the task of focusing for a set period of time and went to it. The part that caught me off guard was that they stuck to it, long after the 4 minutes was up. they read and recorded, not looking at the clock or squirming in their seats. They tackled their research without even a question. I simply stood there, shaking my head. They never cease to teach me something new, if I will only listen and observe. While the Chatter Time is often like “fingernails on chalkboard”, I may well have to learn to let it be an accepted part of my classroom.

8 responses to “Tolerating Chatter

  1. This is a rich subject for discussion. I am a huge supporter of active learning and projects, but that does not necessarily lead to a silent classroom. Finding the right balance of chatter so that one’s classroom can be a place of learning for all is tricky!

  2. I’m sure your post reflects the thoughts of many middle school teachers. Like you, I sometimes wrestle with when to step in and squelch the off-task chat in my gr. 7/8 classroom. Other times, when I want them to debate and share, they’re silent! Sometimes there’s no predicting the behaviour of the middle school student. Maybe that’s why we love teaching them.

    • Heather, I totally agree! I love the fact that there is no telling what will happen in a middle school classroom. They never cease to create amazement and wonder and total confusion as well! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hello Hadley! After reading over a few of your blog posts, I can certainly say that I am fortunate to have been assigned to you as part of my EDM310 course at the University of South Alabama. I look forward to reading more!

    I too am a product of an archaic style of obedience in school and I feel that it will be very liberating to identify those styles and cast them out as they present themselves. As a middle school student, I often dreamed of being able to do so for the teachers that we especially disliked. Now my generation gets to have its day in the teaching field and it feels great!

    I’m going to be a huge fan. Feel free to stop me if I become a bit long-winded on my responses – I have a deep passion for education, thanks to the teachers that we did like.

    • Richard,
      Welcome to the dialogue. I too become totally engaged and excited about the possibilities for teaching. Feel free to share your thoughts. It is an exciting time to be involved in education. It is an ongoing challenge to be the kind of teacher that we each want to be, but there is nothing better than a lesson that works! Good luck!

  4. Dear Hadley,

    I appreciate very much the way you show yourself in process as a teacher in this post – exploring where your commitments and interests lead you, and asking how this might change you, not only how you are trying to change others. To me, this is the heart of the teaching/learning loop. Thank you!

  5. The idea to have your students be silent for four minutes is an amazing strategy–I’m in college now, but I remember far too many teachers who attempted to make their classrooms silent for extended periods of time. Achievable goals are so important!

    I also appreciated how deliberately you handled the problem, going against your impulses in order to create a learning environment that would engage your students as “social beings” and as learners.

  6. I agree with Allison, the timing of the exercise, to me, seems key. Also now in college, I feel as if this “chatter time” is applicable in the classroom still, not just in middle school classrooms. I also agree that there are many different educational experiences to be had during the time of chatter.

    I wonder if there is a way to incorporate both a time of chatter and a time of silence to come to together to be a learning experience. For instance, is it possible that students could take what they are talking about and turn it into something attainable in the classroom and in turn self- regulate their time and amount of chatter? I wonder if the classroom has to be so black and white, chatter or silence?

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