When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.
Henry J. Kaiser
It’s Saturday night as I sit to writing this. I have a mug of tea, a blanket, my laptop, and my cat. It may sound like a pretty boring Saturday evening, but I find it comforting. Why? Because I am an introvert. I do not like to socialize just for the sake of socializing. I enjoy exploring the inner thoughts of my mind, and I find it physically and mentally draining being around people for an extended period of time. I’m not shy. I like people and I have good social skills when I feel inclined to use them. However, as an introvert I prefer environments that are less stimulating. It is perfectly okay with me if I spend an evening or two or three alone.
I recently read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. A professor of mine turned me on to the book after a discussion about my participation in class. I had explained to her that while I typically do not participate in whole-group discussions, I am always engaged in the content of the class. We had a brief conversation about supporting the needs of introverted students, and I realized that I could be inflicting the same discomfort that I experienced during our whole-group discussions upon my very own introverted first-grade students each time they entered our classroom.
In Quiet, Cain discusses how the typical classroom is designed to encourage and celebrate extroverts. Students often work in table groups. Those who are quick to raise their hands, answer questions, and make contributions to discussions are often seen as the “bright” ones, by both their teachers and peers.
Classroom designed with extroverts in mind can be lively places filled with group conversation, with thinking being shared spontaneously amidst noise and distractions. Essentially it’s a place of high stimulation and probably one of the last places an introvert would choose to visit. Is this type of environment bad or unsuitable for students? Absolutely not! Let me be clear. I am not discouraging group work, noise, collaborative and spontaneous thinking, or class discussions. In fact, these are all elements that tend to be present in very successful classrooms, especially in classrooms with a large percentage of emergent bilingual students. Students who are learning a language need opportunities to hear and practice that language.
I teach first grade at the largest and most diverse K-8 school in the Portland Public School District. Twelve of my 23 students are considered emergent bilingual. I got so caught up in providing a language-rich environment for my emergent bilingual students that I overlooked the needs of my introverts. I now know it is possible to have both a collaborative and language-rich environment, as well as an environment where introverted students can thrive.
Cain suggests that one-third to one-half of the population are introverts, which means that we probably have more introverted students in our classrooms than we realize. We ned to support these students by providing the environment and type of activities they need in order to reach their potential. Providing an environment that supports your classroom introverts will not require a massive reconstruction of your classroom or teaching practices. I made a few changes to one of our weekly activities and ended up with something that supports the needs of both my emergent bilingual and introverted students.
I decided to adjust my routine for our weekly interactive read aloud. The interactive read aloud is a time where we practice comprehension strategies in a whole-group setting. In addition, the interactive read alouds provide several opportunities for implementing the think-pair-share strategy. This strategy works well for supporting emergent bilingual and introverted students alike. Students are asked a question and given an opportunity to process with private think time, followed by sharing ideas with a partner, and then sharing with the whole group if they choose. While it is an effective strategy, we use if often during interactive read aloud. I decided to eliminate some of the think-pair-share opportunities and replace them with another activity developed with my introverted students in mind.
Our interactive read aloud for the week was A Weekend with Wendell by Kevin Henkes. As we read the book I paused a few times for think-pair-share opportunities as usual. After we finished the story, I told the class they need to get into their private-studio space and think like an artist (which essentially means we need calm and quiet bodies). I asked the class to think about their favorite part of the story and to put their thumb on their chest when they could see the part in their mind. The comprehension strategy we were working on was visualizing.
Next, I provided students with white paper and oil pastels. I told them their task was to create an illustration of their favorite part of the story — the part they were currently visualizing. The students knew that private-studio space means it was going to be a calm and quiet activity. I put on some soft music and let them get to work. Thirty minutes later when everyone had completed their illustrations we had a quiet gallery walk. The students left their illustrations on their desks and we quietly walked around to view everyone’s work, as if we were in a museum. The students (even the very active and verbal ones) were really into it!
After we had viewed everyone’s piece, we came back to the carpet to share our thinking. It was fantastic. The introverted students were given an opportunity to display their thinking without having to say a word. It was great to see the look of accomplishment on their faces when their peers commented on their pieces. We all could see that Sarah’s favorite part was when Sophie sprayed Wendell with the garden hose, and Dimitri’s favorite part was when Wendell stole the whip cream off of Sophie’s sundae while she had her head turned. These are bits of information that we would not have the pleasure of knowing if we were limited to a group discussion. Chances are Sarah and Dimitri would not have shared. The extroverted students who either require or enjoy the opportunity to verbally share their thinking were given the opportunity to do so in the closing discussion.
I am grateful for the initial conversation I had with my professor which resulted in a more balanced approach to my teaching practices. I am now more conscious of how often I balance group activities with independent work opportunities. The silent gallery is just one of many ideas I intend to try out. The gallery could also be used with older students and a more sophisticated comprehension skill. Supporting introverted students is important but we must remember that teachers and parents should not try to “fix” introverts. There is nothing wrong with being quiet and enjoying private moments free from interruption. Some of the most amazing people to grace this earth are or were introverts: Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Rosa Parks, just to name a few. I would like to close with the brilliant words of Susan Cain: “Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway stage, for others a lamplit desk. ”