To the casual observer, my classroom bears very little resemblance to those of my childhood. Table groups vs rows. Guide on the side vs sage on the stage. Sounds of kids vs sounds of silence. Yet, there are elements of those rooms that I need, that some of my students need.
Amidst all of the mathematical discourse, we have done a really good job of de-privatizing mathematical thinking and thus moving everyone’s thinking forward. We have also done a really good job of addressing the needs of students who process information better by talking about it. Sometimes, though, I think we need to make sure that we have those small pockets of quiet. Quiet to ponder, quiet to think. Quiet. I know that I need it when I am thinking deeply, trying to solve something. I know that some of my students need it, especially in the face of challenging work. .
So, how do we find those pockets of quiet without giving up the discourse? It’s not something that will just happen. We have to create those moments to just think. Those moments when we pose a question but don’t allow anyone to answer, when we define a space to just think or to just write. Then, we have a conversation. We engage in discourse. I really like to use structures to create these spaces of quiet followed by spaces of discourse. It’s one of the reasons that I like Think-Pair-Share and Think-Write Share. They create those moments to just think. Then, they create a space where every single voice can be heard Finally, they create a space where the whole class can engage in a conversation. I like the Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures for the same reason. Students work independently, then with a partner or small group, and only then discuss things with the whole class.
Using these structures means that I have to teach kids to use the structures. It also means I have to teach them to manage their volume. I use a sign that is essentially a traffic light. I show the color of the light that corresponds to the correct volume Red is no talking. Yellow is partner or table group voices. (I tell them it is a 2 foot voice – loud enough to be heard 2 feet away but not much farther). Green is whole class voices (loud enough for the whole class to hear so only one voice should be heard at a time). I think the visual cue is really helpful for kids. I also redirect by referring to the display when things get too loud (“I see yellow, but I am hearing green”.)
Sometimes, I have table groups that have a little difficulty managing their volume. I use a set of green, yellow, and red cups at each table group to help manage this. If the outer cup is green, things are fine. When the group is getting too loud or goes off topic, I go over and change their cup to yellow without saying a word. If it gets to red, the group has lost the privilege of talking to each other temporarily. Surprisingly, I’ve never actually had to go to red.
I want spaces for quiet and spaces for talking and spaces for laughing in my class. For me, structure works (the laughter just happens). It’s not what everyone needs. Some people work fine with a lot less structure. I just can’t. Some of my students have told me that they can’t either. So, the structure gives us a way to have those quiet moments without sacrificing the chance to have really rich discourse that I also want to be a central piece of my classroom.