A few years ago, one of my teacher interns at San Francisco State University wrote a paper that was like the voice of a trickster, waking me up and reminding me of what I occasionally missed as a teacher. The assignment was to recall what it was like for them when they were in high school and to write a letter to their high school teachers advising them about how they might have better served them as students.
My student, Rich DeNagel, wrote:
The Silent Type
Rich's message is clear and powerful. Every teacher should read it and reread it regularly. Fortunately there are also other recent voices that amplify the challenge and the ways to address it.
Susan Cain's brilliant new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, not only does a superb job of discussing the limitations created by an extrovert-centric value system, but specifically describes how teachers and parents can meet the challenge of nurturing "quiet kids in a world that can't hear them." It's also interesting that both Cain and Jonah Lehrer, in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, caution us about the limitations of group decision making, a context in which extroverts dominate and the creative thinking of introverts most often gets lost. This is a powerful reminder to teachers to balance the time provided for group processes with time for individual exploration and contributions.
I tend to shy away from books that focus on helping a child to "overcome" being an introvert. Although I think it's important to help introverted children learn to effectively navigate our extrovert-dominated world, I don't see introversion as a characteristic that needs to be "overcome," and neither do psychologists. They see it as an enduring trait, not a "state." I think teachers and parents need to place a higher value on introversion, a corrective especially well provided by Cain. But I think that Laurie Helgoe's Introvert Power does a good job of both embracing introversion and helping introverts learn to effectively use their strengths. A particularly valuable book in terms of helping kids learn the limits of self-containment while valuing and using their introversion, it is also a useful resource for teachers.
Listening Through the Noise
Having grown up as an introverted kid myself, I've always been aware that rewards for classroom engagement should not be measured only by oral contributions. Many of my best students were ones who rarely spoke in the large group, were active in smaller groups (and the smaller the better) and had a great deal to share with me privately in papers. I especially went out of my way to spend time responding to papers with comments, sometimes appropriately personal, thus encouraging a dialogue. I also took every opportunity I had to reach out to these kids, often just with a quick comment after the bell rang.
It's easier to recognize the challenge Rich describes than it is to meet it. Faced with four or five classes of more than 25 students, it's difficult for teachers to be aware of each student. It's also natural for the most difficult and the most talented to stand out. Yet it is obviously critical that we remain on the lookout for those who behave well and say little, for the invisible student in back of the room who we might recognize as withdrawn or even depressed if we looked just a little more carefully. And then it's important to reach out to that student, establish contact, and provide him or her with the opportunity to be and feel known.
Our classrooms contain too many forgotten introverted students who may need help but are not getting it and/or have gifts that aren't being either elicited or supported. It's important to remember that while Rich survived his high school experience and learned from it, some quiet students may not. Which is why -- amid all the noise and excitement of our extroverted society -- we must tap into the hidden gifts of our invisible adolescents as well.