In the classroom, failing to respond firmly and consistently to student misbehavior can mean losing control of the room—and a quiet, focused class is often a highly productive one. But too much emphasis on the superficial appearance of order can stifle student creativity and passion. An always-quiet, always-composed classroom, veteran teachers tell us, can look like success but conceal a deeper problem with student engagement—disguising disinterest, or even boredom, as attentiveness.
Earlier this year, we wrote about the importance of carving out time to build strong, long-term relationships with middle and high school students because the research shows that these connections are central to productive learning. On our social channels, teachers from around the country passionately agreed, sharing their own experiences of connecting with students in the classroom.
And a powerful theme emerged: Educators told us about the subtle ways they temporarily loosen the reins on discipline or suspend the focus on academics. With the goal of building deep and genuine connections with kids, these teachers insisted that some messiness and noise—yes, even some chaos—moved the class forward in intangible ways. The research and the neuroscience clearly square with this practice: Students need downtime to process recently learned material and make space for new lessons, and the social context of classrooms—the relationships with fellow learners, the sense of belonging and camaraderie—drives deeper academic engagement.
“My first piece of advice is not to be scared of a noisy classroom,” Heather Redmon Leise, a high school history and government teacher, wrote via Facebook, counseling other teachers to confront some old taboos. “Let the side conversations happen while students are working, and eventually they will invite you in.”
Traditionally, letting kids chat in class is discouraged—unless it’s done with purpose. “It’s common to assume that allowing students to talk to whomever they want about whatever they want is a bad thing. That it wastes time. That it gets them off track. That it riles them up and causes misbehavior,” writes teacher and author Michael Linsin in his Smart Classroom Management blog. “But when you decide when and how it’s done, it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, giving students a few minutes to stand, stretch their legs, and chat with a friend can be an effective classroom management strategy.”
Allow Some Frivolity
Within the framework of a well-managed classroom, experienced teachers tell us, they’ve grown to embrace this type of flexibility, building in opportunities to honor students’ humanity, letting them take breaks and be silly at times, and giving them frequent, in-classroom opportunities to connect. It may look messy on the surface, but it’s how these educators build authentic, meaningful classroom communities where kids are engaged and learning.
Give Them Time to Tell Their Stories
Rules in the classroom matter, but relationships matter more, according to Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “One way we can deepen our relationships with students is to share a bit about ourselves with them, and create opportunities for them to share with us—and each other,” Alber says.
It’s a priority that savvy educators have advocated for a long time. “Years ago, the late Ted Sizer came to my university to give a talk to a small group of teacher candidates and faculty,” writes Laura Thomas, director of the Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal and a former teacher, via Facebook. “One of the teachers asked him: ‘How can I change anything?’ Ted answered: ‘Bear witness to one another’s stories. Tell yours, listen to the stories that your colleagues tell, listen to the stories your students tell. Bear witness.’” Notes Thomas: “Best advice I’ve ever received.”
Sharing stories can be a relatively unstructured part of the day: You might start the period by asking if anyone has a good story to share with the class or share one yourself. Or pair kids up and ask them to share a good thing that happened recently in their lives or something they’re looking forward to. “It doesn’t have to be anything major—it can be something as simple as, ‘It’s taco night at my house tonight,’” says Alber. “Start each day or class period with [this type of sharing], and as students get more comfortable with it, expand the groups to four or five students to help forge more community connections. You share too.”
In the end, it’s the sharing and listening that sets these classrooms apart, allowing kids to develop a deep sense of connection to their teacher and classmates, priming them for productive learning. “Let them tell you their stories,” Redmon Leise writes. “Work stories. Pet stories. Homework stories. Relationship stories. Stop and listen. One on one, even in a class of 34 (which I’ve had), it’s a game-changer—23 years later, relationships are my most effective tool.”
Bracket the Class With Unstructured Time
Consider starting or ending class with a few minutes of open, largely unstructured chat time, but be sure you have a plan to right the ship.
When classes start to drag and students’ interest flags, sometimes a simple 2- or 3-minute break with some stretching can reenergize everyone. “The key to allowing talking breaks is for you to decide when and how they’re done,” says Linsin. It’s important to teach and model for students how this quick mental and physical break will unfold and how they’ll return to their seats as the chat break concludes to focus once more on learning. “I realize that allowing students to talk can feel a bit rebellious or sacrilegious, or almost too simple to make a difference. But it’s sneakily effective,” Linsin writes.
Challenge the Conventional Wisdom
Ultimately, students need to talk, says Jennifer Gonzalez, a former middle school language arts teacher and the editor of Cult of Pedagogy, and it’s important to make space for that in the classroom. “If you’re shooting for a classroom environment where students sit silently and do rote seat work all day long, where they never have an opportunity to talk to their peers, where they never get out of their seats, and where the work is not engaging, you are going to have problems,” she writes.
It’s reasonable, of course, to expect kids to be quiet while you’re teaching and giving instructions, and during independent work, but there should be times throughout the day when they can chat freely and work off antsiness and boredom. It’s OK to occasionally break out of the standard routine—and kids often really benefit from a learning break. So actively seek out opportunities throughout the day for them to “express themselves, to get up and move around, to work in groups and pairs and discuss,” Linsin writes. “Classrooms should be vibrant and interesting, exciting places, and so I’m all for getting students up and moving and having fun. Those things just make classroom management stronger, and they free you to ask anything of your students, including silence.”