Saturday, February 1, 2014

Encouraging Class Participation

There are many reasons to encourage our students to participate in class. It helps the teacher get a better sense of what our students know and where they need clarification. It allows typically hearing peers to see the student with hearing loss as an equal contributor to the class. Participation empowers our students as they are heard and acknowledged. However, participation does not always come naturally; it is a skill that often must be taught. When I observe in a classroom, participation is one of the many things I look for. How does my student’s participation compare to that of his or her peers? Participation means knowing that a peer is speaking and turning to face that person; raising a hand to answer a question; responding verbally when called on; initiating interactions during small group work; responding to a comment made by a peer – the list is vast and varying.

For elementary students, the classroom teacher plays a leading role in helping all students learn how to participate.  Most classrooms have rules for participation around what good listeners do. Many have systems in place where the person speaking stands. One fourth-grade teacher I worked with required students to summarize what the previous person said before commenting to ensure that all students were listening to each other (e.g. “Jack said he thinks the answer is _______, but I think…”). Often, elementary classrooms have agreed upon visual cues that students can use to indicate that they share the same idea or perspective (such as a hand signal). When these systems are not in place naturally, we must work with teachers to set up good listening and participation expectations for the whole class.

At times, even with clear expectations, my students report reluctance to participate in class for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of being wrong to feelings of discomfort regarding their speech quality. Knowing why a student is hesitant helps me strategize with the student. One of my third graders reported that she did not like to answer questions in class because she didn’t want to be wrong in front of her peers. Yet, when I checked in with her, she often had the correct information! In order to help my student overcome her fear of speaking in class, I devised a system with her classroom teacher. The teacher gave me a list of questions she was planning to ask during a period of instruction and my student had to choose one that she was comfortable answering. She was able to write in her response, knowing that while I observed, the teacher would call on her to answer that question. Having the answer written out in front of her, she knew that she could not be “wrong.” She was initially anxious, but after a few times using this method she began to relax and her participation gradually increased, even without previewing all the questions.

Another elementary student had the opposite problem. Wanting so desperately to appear knowledgeable in front of his peers, he raised his hand to answer every question, called out responses, and went on tangents giving far more information than was necessary to answer the question. The frustration was noticeable as his peers rolled their eyes or groaned every time his hand went up. My student and I spent time observing together, paying attention to how other students responded to questions and shared information. Working with his teacher, we set up a system where he had three marbles in his desk, which equaled three participation turns during an instructional period.  Each time he answered a question or made a comment, he had to give a marble to his teacher. Knowing he could only answer three questions, this helped my student self-regulate and make contributions that were more thoughtful and meaningful. It also gave others a chance to contribute. He no longer needs the marble system and his contributions are appreciated by his peers rather than dreaded.

With my older students, I share my observation notes and we are able to have candid conversations about what I’ve observed, set goals and strategize to make participation more meaningful. For one student, this initially meant tallying how many times she turned to look at a peer who was speaking. Once she mastered that skill and could articulate the importance, she commented that she often missed what a soft-spoken boy said, realizing that she was missing his answers to questions as well as information he contributed to the discussion. She later implemented the communication repair strategies we practiced together (e.g. “I heard you say_____but missed the last part.”). Now, this student is working on commenting on what her peers say, rather than just focusing on answering her teacher’s questions. She reports that she is feeling more connected to her peers, participating in the debates and discussions that happen in class rather than being an observer.

For high school students, support with participation may look different for each student. One student brings me oral presentations so that we can practice together and write in words phonetically to build her confidence when presenting. Another student was placed in a history class that involved many group projects. Together, we outlined her individual strengths as a group member (note taking, organization of ideas, layout and artistic design of visual supports, oral presentation) as well as areas of weakness and skills she should look for in a partner (written syntax, grammar, transitions between topics).  Her teacher reported that she handled group projects in a surprisingly mature manner and showed leadership skills that she had not demonstrated previously.

Our individual time with students is important, but classroom time must be meaningful as well. I strive to make sure my students are “heard” in the classroom just as much as their typically hearing peers. What helpful strategies have you seen related to class participation?

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