The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
Peter F. Drucker
A few months ago, I attended a job-related conference in California. Eager to keep up my fitness regimen, I hunted down a class that sounded like what I was missing back home. I sauntered in, all swagger and confidence. Exercise was as much a part of my routine as brushing my teeth and washing dishes; I just needed a teacher to guide me through.
The teacher barely looked up as we checked in, and then, when she took her place in the front of the room, she wore a cynical smile. “Well. We certainly do have a lot of newbies today,” she said. Her shoulders flexed, seemingly involuntarily. It occurred to me that she probably spent more hours in a gym than I spend with my nose in a book.
I could pick out her regulars; they stood in the front of the room like a personal army. They didn’t actually smirk, but it sure felt like it. I ducked my head, feeling anxious.
She sighed. “Well, then. Let’s see how we do, shall we?”
Five minutes in, I felt lost and directionless. The teacher stayed rooted in her spot in the front of the room, moving with fierce and unrelenting intensity. While the regulars followed along, lockstep, the rest of us were struggling to keep up. And as the minutes ticked by, it got more and more messy. The hotshots were fine, but the rest of us showed our confusion and insecurity with awkward poses, crinkled eyebrows, and deep panting.
Read the room, I found myself silently urging, rooting for her in spite of myself. Your students are flailing here . . . Look up! Take notice! Change something before we all give up!
I locked one eye on the clock. I couldn’t wait until it was over so I would never, ever have to do this again.
Later, I thought about why the class had failed, compared with experiences I have with my fitness studio at home. In my previous experiences, the teachers had the inherent ability to read the room and figure out how to make adjustments immediately, so that no one got lost or left behind. They were truly teachers. In this case, though, the “teacher” was really a commander in chief—barking orders with the assumption that everyone would keep up.
Being a successful teacher requires immediate, ongoing, and varying adjustments.
Good teachers know how to read a room and how to continue with the day’s goals without compromising the experience of any student. They know inherently (or they have been explicitly trained) how to deliver information and determine whether it is being received. If someone is confused, they slip in, undetected, to offer some adjustments or modifications. If someone needs a different resource or support, they can snag it from the shelf and place it into the right hands. If the whole class needs to slow down, they lead the de-acceleration. Likewise, if no one is breaking a sweat, they can increase the intensity until everyone is being challenged.
The thing good teachers don’t do is barrel ahead while the class cowers in the back and scrambles along willy-nilly, just hanging on until it’s all over.
Reading the room is one of the least-discussed but most-relied upon skills in a teacher’s toolkit. Looking up, moving around, checking in—without calling out those who are falling behind, or making anyone feel insecure—is all part of being the kind of teacher who will make students want to come back, ready and eager to learn.
This week we look at one of those teaching skills that require the ability to read the room well — facilitating whole-class discussions. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Long an avid reader, Jennifer Schwanke has worked as an educator for 15 years. She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. Jen enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can find her latest thinking at her Leading and Learning blog.
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Ruth Ayres catalogs her favorite types of share sessions (from old favorites to creative innovations) in writing workshops:
Melanie Swider discovers that conversations after read-alouds are a wonderful way for students to remember and retain the learning from shared texts:
Here is a handout from the Core Collaborative with some excellent conversation stems to foster stronger class discussions:
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Katrina Edwards moves her first-grade class out of a rut with writing shares by introducing many new options:
In this week’s video, Katrina leads a whole-class reading share session where the focus is on how reading partners work together to teach and not tell:
Mark Levine finds that the best way to deal with controversial topics like slavery in his middle school classroom is with open and focused whole-class discussions:
Andrea Smith builds reflection into whole-class discussions in her fourth-grade classroom by beginning an anchor chart with four different illustrations from the covers of a read-aloud:
In an encore video, Sean Moore asks his second-grade students to share their writing with peers and the whole class as they work on adding details and descriptive language to their pieces:
That’s all for this week!