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What to Do When Students Talk When They’re Not Supposed to Talk

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “When Students Won’t Stop Talking” by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy, October 8, 2017,
In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez describes a typical scenario from her early years teaching middle-school students. She gave students a writing assignment and for a few seconds things were quiet. Then a student said she didn’t know what to write, and Gonzalez walked over to her desk to help. Two more hands went up – they were stuck as well. Before she got to them, a student closed his journal, finished already, and the two stuck students asked him what he wrote about. “The room needs to stay quiet so we can concentrate,” Gonzalez told them. Another student had a question and she squatted by her desk, and behind her, a conversation started between two other students. “Okay, people,” she said, louder this time. “Let’s keep it down.” Now it was a game. Someone needed to visit the pencil sharpener. And another person. More conversations. “And then I yelled,” says Gonzalez.
A common scenario? Gonzalez says she hears versions of it all the time from teachers. “One of the things they don’t teach us in our education courses,” she says, “is just how freaking much students talk, and how hard it can be to quiet them down in order to get anything accomplished.”
As she wrestled with this problem and consulted with experts, Gonzalez made two baseline assumptions: First, humans need to talk, and trying to impose silence over long periods of classroom time is a formula for trouble. But students at every grade level should be able to sit quietly while the teacher gives directions or teaches a directed lesson, and they should be able to sit quietly during independent work time. And there should be times when it’s okay for students to talk, work in groups, express themselves, move around, and have fun. All that strengthens classroom management.
Second, a big piece of classroom management is building good relationships with students. “If you haven’t taken the time to get to know them as individuals,” she says, “if you mispronounce their names, if you regularly use sarcasm or make them feel stupid for asking questions, then they aren’t going to want to behave well for you.”
Gonzalez’s next step was figuring out why she was having so much trouble getting students to work quietly. Michael Linsin, her go-to guru on classroom management, suggested there were two reasons:
- Students don’t believe you mean it. “So even if they hear you,” says Gonzalez, “even if they understand that you want quiet at a certain time, they don’t believe anything negative will happen if they ignore your request.”
- They don’t understand what “no talking” means. Different teachers have different definitions of classroom silence, and it’s quite possible that in many students’ minds, quiet chatting about something important is not a problem.
“When most of the class is not doing what you ask,” says Linsin, “it’s on you. It’s about you. There’s some disconnect there, there’s something they’re not understanding.” This isn’t about disrespect, it’s about communication, and solving the problem is still in the teacher’s hands. “That’s not to say that you won’t have disrespectful students,” says Gonzalez, “but shifting the blame to them means you have no power over the situation. Blaming students simply isn’t a useful way to address the problem.”
So what about all that talking during silent writing time? “The good news is that the solution is pretty simple,” she says, “and it requires no behavior charts, tokens, or Jolly Ranchers.”
• Step 1: Define expectations in explicit detail. “If you believe you’ve already done this, and it hasn’t worked, the issue is probably lack of detail in your explanation,” says Gonzalez. You may need to model the desired behavior yourself, or have several students show what’s expected while you’re delivering instruction and during independent work time. And it’s important to be explicit about (and model) what’s not acceptable.
• Step 2: Have students practice. “Whether you’re teaching how to find a topic sentence or how you want your students to line up before recess,” says Gonzalez, “it’s all teaching.” You might say, “I’m going to give you 60 seconds, and I want you to show me what good listening looks like, and no talking. So let’s pretend I’m standing and giving you a lesson. I want to know what that looks like. [Standing up front, then walking around.] Mmmm, okay, that looks good. Mmmm. Chin up a little higher!” It’s okay to have some fun with this, exaggerate, act things out; it’s not a punishment. It’s also a good idea to agree on a nonverbal sign that students can give to someone who is violating the norm, trying to talk to them during a silent time – perhaps a scissors or peace sign, meaning “I’m really sorry, but I have to listen to the lesson” or “I’m really sorry, but I have to do my work.” If the chatterbox sees the sign and gets back to work, there won’t be a consequence because he or she is showing responsible behavior.
• Step 3: Teach the consequences. It should be crystal clear what will happen if students violate the norms – from an initial warning to contacting parents and other steps.
• Step 4: Do it for real. After going through Steps 1-3, teach a lesson and have an independent work period where the class puts it all into practice. “If you’ve taught the expectations in detail,” says Gonzalez, “students should do a good job, but if they don’t, you need to enforce your consequences exactly as you described.” It’s actually helpful if a student steps over the line so you can show that you mean what you say.
• Step 5: Continue to define expectations in small chunks. Tell students what’s expected of them before any transition in classroom activity. “When you are about to do group work,” she says, “let students know that talking within the group is okay. If you then switch to independent work, remind them that absolute quiet will be expected. Briefly describe what that will look like, even spelling out what not to do if that fits the activity.”
The key to all this, says Linsin, is prevention: “Anytime you can give a reminder before misbehavior, it’s a good thing. Anytime you give a reminder after you see misbehavior, it’s a bad thing. You should be holding students accountable, but be preemptive whenever you can.”

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