One day, in front 36 riotous sophomores, I clutched my chest and dropped to my knees like Sergeant Elias at the end of Platoon. Instantly, dead silence and open mouths replaced classroom chaos. Standing up like nothing had happened, I said, “Thanks for your attention––let’s talk about love poems.”
I never used that stunt again. After all, should a real emergency occur, it would be better if students call 911 rather than post my motionless body on YouTube. I’ve thought this through.
Most teachers use silencing methods, such as flicking the lights; ringing a call bell—see Teacher Tipster’s charming video; raising two fingers; saying “Attention, class”; or using Harry Wong’s Give Me 5––a command for students to:
- Focus their eyes on the speaker,
- Be quiet,
- Be still,
- Empty their hands, and
There’s also the “three fingers” version, which stands for stop, look, and listen. Fortunately, none of these involve medical hoaxes.
Below you’ll find a collections of lesser known techniques for all grade levels.
How to Quiet Early Elementary Students
Novelty—such as the sound of a wind chime or rain stick—captures young students’ attention. Beth O., in Cornerstone for Teachers, tells her students, “Pop a marshmallow in.” Next she puffs up her cheeks, and the kids follow suit. It’s hard to speak with an imaginary marshmallow filling your mouth.
An equally imaginative approach involves filling an empty Windex bottle with lavender mineral oil and relabeling the bottle “Quiet Spray.” Or you can blow magic “hush-bubbles” for a similar impact.
Late Elementary and Middle Grade Attention Getters
Back when I taught middle school students, I would announce, “Silent 20,” as a way to conclude an activity. If students returned to their seats and were completely quiet within 20 seconds, I advanced them one space on a giant facsimile of Game of Life. When they reached the last square (which took approximately one month), we would have a popcorn party.
One of the best ways to maintain a quiet classroom is to catch students at the door before they enter. During these encounters, behavior management expert Rob Plevin recommends using “nonconfrontational statements” and “informal chitchat” to socialize kids into productive behaviors.
Two approaches for securing 100 percent attention are modeled in a short video narrated by Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov––a minimally invasive hand gesture and a countdown technique (“I need two people. You know who you are. I need one person...”).
Another idea is to use a content “word of the week” to signal that it’s time for silence. Examples: integer, renaissance, or circuit.
Quieting High School Students
Sometimes, rambunctious high school classrooms need a little longer to comply. In An ELT Notebook article, Rob Johnson recommends that teachers write the following instructions in bold letters on the chalkboard: “If you wish to continue talking during my lesson, I will have to take time off you at break. By the time I’ve written the title on the board you need to be sitting in silence. Anyone who is still talking after that will be kept behind for five minutes.”
The strategy always, always works, says Johnson, because it gives students adequate warning.
Another technique, playing classical music (Bach, not Mahler) on low volume when learners enter the room, sets a professional tone. I played music with positive subliminal messages to ninth graders until they complained that it gave them headaches.
This is a collection of catchy sayings that work as cues to be quiet. The first ones are appropriate for early and middle grade students, and the later ones have been field-tested to work with high school kids.
- The teacher says, “Holy.” The students respond with, “Macaroni.”
- The teacher says, “1, 2, 3, eyes on me.” The students respond with, “1, 2, eyes on you.”
- The teacher says, ”I’m incredible.” The students respond with, “Like the Hulk. Grrrrrr!” (Kids flex during the last sound.)
- The teacher says, “Hey.” The students respond with, “Macarena.”
- The teacher says, “I get knocked down.” The students respond with, “But I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down.”
- The teacher says, “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine.” The students respond with, “You’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey.”
- The teacher says, “The only easy day.” The students respond with, “Was yesterday.” (A Navy SEALs slogan.)
For maximum effect, teach your quiet signal and procedure, as demonstrated in this elementary-level classroom video. Next, have kids rehearse being noisy until you give the signal for silence. Don’t accept anything less than 100 percent compliance. Then describe appropriate levels of noise for different contexts, such as when you’re talking (zero noise) or during a writing workshop (quiet voices), etc.
If a rough class intimidates you (we’ve all been there), privately practice saying the following in an authoritative voice: “My words are important. Students will listen to me.” Say it until you believe it. Finally, take comfort in the knowledge that, out of 3 million U.S. educators who taught today, two or three might have struggled to silence a rowdy class.