Student Engagement

One Quick Thing

A brief daily sharing exercise can help young students build a sense of community and the confidence to participate in class.

February 13, 2018
Girl raising hand in class.
©Shutterstock.com/gpointstudio

I’m a learning specialist at an independent school in New York City, and the students I work with in small pullout groups have all been identified as needing extra reading support. Last school year, I noticed that the students in my first grade reading group all seemed to have one thing in common: They were painfully shy and hesitated to participate or take risks. 

I initially chalked this up to the fact that all six of them were introverts as well as struggling readers. However, something in my teacher instincts told me that I didn’t have the full picture of who they were.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

At a professional development workshop about communication in the age of emojis, I learned that if students’ voices are heard at the beginning of class and they have a chance to speak right off the bat, their participation will increase. The presenters recommended doing a quick scan of students as they enter the room: What is their body language communicating? Are there any changes in mood? Might a student benefit from a private conversation before or after class? 

I decided to incorporate a quick share at the beginning of each reading class to see if it would help my students become braver participants. Given the time constraints I faced in my instructional period, as I only see my students for 45 minutes per day, I knew that the sharing would need to be brief. And, as with any skill, I knew that I’d have to explicitly teach my students how to do it effectively. 

Teaching One Quick Thing

When I introduced this share as “one quick thing,” I gave these directions: “I want you to think about one thing in your life that you’re excited about right now. I’ll give you some quiet think time to get ready. There are three rules: One, it has to be just one thing. Two, it has to be quick. Three, it can be about anything. And if you don’t want to share, you can pass.” 

I then modeled my own one quick thing and gave them some think time. After a few sessions, I began planning mini-lessons to help their sharing become more effective. These mini-lessons not only helped the sharing be more meaningful, but also provided an opportunity for me to teach critical listening and speaking skills.

Each mini-lesson followed the same structure: I delivered a teaching point (e.g., “Today we’re going to work on focusing on the most important point during our sharing”), and then I modeled the expected behavior and asked the students to briefly share their observations.

These were the mini-lessons we covered:

  • Main idea vs. detail—we focused on these separately.
  • Speaking so that your audience can hear.
  • Using specific names for people, places, and things—for instance, if a story was about a particular family member, stating that person’s name and relationship to the student.
  • Avoiding vague words like stuff, thing, place, this guy, etc.

I found that my students also needed mini-lessons on how to speak briefly and clearly, and similar instruction on how to be effective listeners. We had lessons on keeping our eyes on the speaker, using engaged body language (sitting still, not playing with a pencil, etc.), and thinking of follow-up questions (if time allowed) that still focused on what the speaker had shared (in other words, this was not a time for the listener to share a personal story that may or may not be relevant).

I observed over time that my body language played a role. If a student shared for several minutes (which often felt eternal), I began to feel a sense of urgency that I would convey in my posture and facial expression. I would have to force myself to take a relaxed posture, put an empathetic smile on my face, and nod. I would also cover my mouth with my hand, which made me look thoughtful while also reminding me to stay quiet.

A Change in Energy

As my students began to share one quick thing regularly, I noticed a change in their energy. They burst through the door. They participated actively during the whole period. Even their perceptions of themselves as readers seemed to became more positive. If there was ever a day when I forgot to start class with this routine, they gently reminded me.

For those of us who only have students for one period, it can be challenging to create a sense of community that ultimately leads to increased participation. With young students, starting the class period with one quick thing—which students can share individually or with partners—can go a long way in creating a safe space for student voices. Building in a few minutes at the beginning of class for students to speak can impact the learning for the rest of the period.