Monday, December 7, 2009

Get Off the Soap Box

Sometimes in the classroom I have verbal diarrhea. The sheer volume of the stuff coming out of my mouth is impressive, if excessive. It's as though I'm narrating what the class is doing, explaining directions, giving my opinion on any number of things in a never-ending string of gestures and phrases that is tuned out by most students after about twenty seconds and is not tuned back into until I change the volume of my voice from loud to incredibly loud, say something they really want to hear that has nothing to do with what we're doing in class, or threaten them with extending the period into lunch or past the end of the day.

In addition to this verbal phenomena, I also take the time out of my busy day on many days of the year to tell students about life's mysteries, what they can expect from high school, college, future employers (sometimes current employers), parents, siblings, etc. I talk about the psychology that explains why people act and tell them that their actions are going to affect whether they graduate or not. Sometimes my brain tunes out and my mouth just goes, spouting something that, while intelligible to my friends who have a decent graduate level education, is certainly not something my eighth graders understand.

Now, this desire to tell students the facts of school and sometimes life is derived from a very real concern about their well-beings, how well they're doing in school compared to the average American student and unsettling statistics about what will happen to them if they don't turn around their behavior and finish high school. The added stress of a semi-controlled classrooms with a few very unruly students draws out the lecture and increases the desire to cut the lesson about citizenship and simply "tell students how it is." This preaching to students, even if it does sink in with a couple of them in the long run, generally leads to a lot of eye-rolling and a dramatic increase in talking and unruly behavior by those who are most often guilty of . The irony, of course, is those talking and ignoring and/or mocking the advice/ideas I've talked about are exactly those who need to be listening. As you'll be able to tell in time, the idea of a State of the Class Address is difficult to pull off especially on semi-weekly basis.

When talking to a rather difficult class, less is generally more. Standing up on a soap box and telling a class what they're doing wrong, why it's wrong and how they're going to fix it; trying to make a speech about what things should be when they simply are not that way; and trying to tell students anything important when they are more interested in showing their friends how well they defy authority by showing you the finger is generally not incredibly effective.

Step away from the podium. Common sense says trying to talk down a class that is refusing to listen is not going to be effective. The impulse you developed in undergrad says that if you present a reasonable argument that the students are going to stop in their tracks, say,"Gee willikers, he's right," and amend their ways. If you've been on the front since September you already know that's ridiculous. For those classes that are giving you particular trouble, try to reduce the number of words you say to the bare minimum. If the students have a very short attention span for you when you're talking (whether they should or not), it's your job to place your instruction into that window and to try to expand it.

Today's Wine: Project Happiness Syrah. This bottle only has a yellow happy face on the front of it. Most of the reviews seem a bit down on it, but what I had of it followed the Charles Shaw Shiraz, so the Project Happiness tasted pretty alright.


  1. While the unruly behaviour doesn't necessarily exist in all classroom settings the eye rolling and proverbial "talk to the hand" can be seen in most of them, regardless of education level. Long lectures almost always end up falling on def ears. I applaud you for being able to take a step back and assess your own teaching style. I believe graduate level Professors could take a few notes from you.


  2. I appreciate it. I fear too many future teachers go through a school of education where they experience lectures about how ineffective it is to lecture. Perhaps some day that will change.