Here is something I wanted to write about a while back and thought I did, but was reminded by a friend that it never happened. So here it is now.
The question is how do you get more students to open up and speak more often? Teachers will tell me that their students won't say anything in class. I think "That's odd because as they were walking into the classroom they were talking nonstop." And as soon as class is over and they leave the room they continue their non-stop conversations, but during class time they tend to clam up. So how do we get more out of them, or sometimes how do we get even anything out of them.
Here is one way: if you think that the only way to know that they want to participate is by the raise of the hand then you will miss a lot of opportunities. Students tell teachers all the time that they want to participate, but they don't do it by the raised, waving, and obvious hand. They tend to be more subtle with their gestures and if you learn to read them - to become the Student Whisperer - you will get them into the conversation much more.
Rule #1 in my class is this: no one has to participate. No one has to volunteer and no one has to speak when called on. All they have to do is say "pass" or simply shake their head. I won't probe beyond that. That rule tends to make it safe for them and oddly enough increase the likelihood that they will participate. The pressure is gone.
So I'll ask a question to the class. It is never a 'guess what I'm thinking' question and it is rarely a yes/no question. I don't like those questions as they are all dead ends. It is an opinion question because I want to know how they perceive what we are doing. In every class there will be a few students who will raise their hands high and beg to be called on. I appreciate them and use them but I can't have them be the only ones. So I look around for subtle signs. Here are some of the good ones I look for when I ask a question: was the head lifted up slightly? Did the eyebrows arch? Was the head cocked to the side with a pensive look? Did the shoulders shrug? Did the facial expression change? Did a hand come up just a little, as in "I think I want to raise my hand but I'm not real sure and don't want to commit in front of all of these witnesses'? Was there a deep breath? Was there a wiggle in the seat?
All of these are signs that the student is listening, has heard, and maybe wants to say something. So I just call on one of them. I'll say "Bob, what would you like to say?" In the beginning of the term when I start doing this the stock answer is "Nothing, I don't have anything to say." I'll follow up with "Well, now that I've called on you would you like to say anything?" More often than not he will. He will recognize that I'm serious about wanting to hear his thoughts. But if not I just file it away and think that he will take a little more time. Sometimes a student will initially say "Why did you call on me, I didn't raise my hand?" I'll smile and say something like "I just have a way of knowing who really has something important to say - do you?" Very often that gets them talking.
This method rarely fails. It is incredibly easy. The students know they don't have to talk and I won't reprove them for their silence. They can say no without any repercussions. That frees them to make a decision based on what they really feel and more often than not they will feel like talking.
Here is another way to use this. I'll see someone give a subtle sign and I'll say "Heather, would you like to respond to the question or would you like your friend Jan to respond." Almost always they will call on their friend, but here is the great part. After the friend has said something (and we've done something with it and made something of it) the original person will many times add something to it. She really did want to speak but it took the friend speaking to loosen things up.
If you will go into class with the assumption that students have something to say and want to say it, then you can act on that and they will follow your lead. Learn to look for the subtle signs and don't be afraid to draw, or invite, people into the conversation. It is the very rare student who really does not want to get into the game. And when I leave that one alone he or she will almost always come in on their own terms, sooner or later. In a class I currently teach there is a student who never spoke at all for many, many class periods. Finally one day he raised his hand. There were other hands up too but I ignored them all and called on this student and he spoke, and now he speaks regularly. I think that the vast majority want to be part of what is happening but most of them don't want to be too obvious about it, so watch them as you teach and figure out how they express their willingness and bring them along.