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Communication Skills

Maximizing Student Voice to Achieve Equity in Classroom Participation

With some guidance, all students—whether outgoing or reserved—can effectively take part in class discussions.

October 4, 2021
High school students raising hands in class
skynesher / iStock

I once heard someone say, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This statement carries even more weight as we seek to dismantle systems of inequity in middle and high school classrooms, since it translates to: “The person doing the talking is the person with the power.”

Who has the power in our classrooms? How do we ensure equity in access to that power? We do it by ensuring equity to air space.

Changing Ourselves as Questioners

One way we can ensure equity to air space is by minimizing the generic questions that we throw around to anyone who will take us up on answering. These generic and nontargeted questions ensure that students who are confident in their answers and who are outspoken are the only ones with the voice. This convenient default mode is dangerous because it subliminally communicates to students that answering questions is about getting the right answer rather than actively learning. It also undermines the best practice of ensuring wait time so that all students can formulate their thinking.

When I operate from this default mode, it also means that some students feel invisible; I can watch students leave my class after a period realizing I only “noticed” about half of them… the dominant voices. I hate those days. Ultimately, questions that are intentional in their design and target are the questions that ensure all voices are honored.

Changing Our Students as Conversationalists

Our classroom is full of students who have inherent conversational tendencies. Some dominate the conversation. Some are active listeners. Some sprinkle in their thoughts here and there. Some are distracted. Being intentional in creating equitable air space benefits all of these types—and more.

In any healthy working environment that is built on quality collaboration, those who are dominant need to build self-monitoring skills to transition from vocal participation to strategic facilitation. The same is true for students who do not like to participate. Students who are shy need a safe space to build the confidence and courage to share their thoughts and ask their questions. When we create a classroom dedicated to equity of verbal space, we model healthy collaborative practices that build sensitivity and awareness of one another.

Before I continue, I want to be clear about the difference between equity and equality in air space. Equality would mean all students are talking the same exact amount. But, far richer yet more difficult to achieve, equity protects all students’ right to be heard. It is not about frequency; it is about presence. This allows for people’s natural conversational styles to be honored but still sends the message that every single person’s voice in the class matters and is worthy of being heard. Here are some ways to do just that.

Setting Up an Equitable Air Space

In the beginning of the year, focus on building connections through community builders and establishing healthy participation norms. Be redundant and explicit with the messages that verbal processing is a necessary part of learning, that all voices matter and deserve to be heard, that mistakes and questions are welcome and honored, that struggle is messy but collaborative and rewarding.

Even more important than these messages is the tone that they are delivered in. When participating in class becomes a punitive grade opportunity (“You’ll lose points if you don’t contribute”), a healthy verbal space is undermined. Rather, the invitation should be just that: a warm welcome to truly be here, in this community. Another easy action to build equitable air space is to reduce teacher talk; our classrooms should be dominated by the voices of students and only facilitated by ours.

Another essential way to ensure equity in air space early on is to get to know our students as individuals. I do this through several surveys at the beginning of the year. One of them asks students to tell me about their participation style. For those who self-indicate they are dominant, I conference with them about the importance of developing their listening and leadership skills in conversations. For those who are reserved, I conference with them about the importance of verbal engagement and how I can support them in their growth.

Strategy and Design

It’s not enough to establish the foundation for equity in air space; it must be nurtured intentionally throughout the year. For this, I rely on protocols. Yes, they can come with baggage, but I have come to see through my own experience and through the experience of my students that protocols protect participation.

More often than not, I build in think time. This means students have quiet time to mentally process and/or write in preparation for our discussion. This encourages students who speak too quickly to add depth and complexity to their thoughts, while also giving the reserved students confidence and courage.

I find that a modified think-pair-share protocol is a great extension of this. Students have time to gather their thoughts, then they share with a partner, and then I ask students to share out not what they said, but what their partners said.

It’s important here to point out the difference between a discussion and a share out. Whereas a discussion offers students the chance to spontaneously volley their thoughts among one another, a share out offers more space for students who are reserved to have the chance to offer their voice. Another boost to those students is to give them a heads-up that I will ask them to speak.

Lastly, I always make sure as much as possible that I offer choice and variety. For example, I offer eight to 10 questions that require a variety of thinking strategies but allow students to pick the three that most interest them. 

Through intentional design and follow-through, even the shyest of students can feel verbal success. In these classes, everyone speaks. Every voice matters. Everyone has the power.

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  • Communication Skills
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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