I have a recurring night-before-term-starts dream/ nightmare of walking into a class (of about fifty, large students) in a classroom straight out of Season Four of ‘The Wire’ and, not only do they not stop talking, they all start to get up and walk out. I am sure I am not alone with this ‘what happens if they won’t be quiet?’ anxiety. To stop this dream becoming a reality, here are some tried and tested strategies for getting students to listen.
I know I go on about this a lot but, in any strategy you use, you need to do it like you mean it and like you know it is going to work. You will use a variety of ways to get your class quiet but, if you use a glut of them, in a short period of time, with no conviction, chances are you will be disappointed with the results.
Silence is Not Always Golden
It took me quite a long time to realise that silence doesn’t necessarily mean good teaching because learning is usually not silent. If you are gaining silence from a class, you need to think about why. I learn by talking, watching, talking, practising, talking, etc. with all activities being sandwiched by talking. We know how to talk productively and teaching students how to talk in a learning context is a big part of your job. Though the end point is usually sitting silently in an exam hall and writing (and we need to prepare students for this), this does not mean preparations for these need to be silent. Don’t be scared of noise – it does not necessarily mean you have lost control.
If you want a class to be quiet but the majority of them are talking then focus on praising the minority. This makes sense for a few reasons.
- If someone is quiet and you praise them, they stay quiet. If someone is talking, and you tell them off, there is no guarantee they will stay quiet. This means you could end up spinning plates or playing ‘Whack a Mole’ (though I am not suggesting that whacking or moles have any place in your classroom).
- The minority is also likely to be your early ‘heroes’ and supporters. They are the students who are leading the exodus towards positively and harmony in your classroom so, never forget to praise them.
- The students who are just talking, not to be necessarily disruptive or defiant, will see that they get positive attention if they are quiet at this time. The quiet students and your praise of them serve as a model to other students. You can watch it happen. The quiet will spread.
The dream ticket is if a student, who would normally be talking and who has some influence socially over the class, is quiet. Jump on this and praise them. They will bring many more with them.
You need to think about the reasons students might be noisy or not respond immediately to your call to silence. If you ignore these, you risk irritating your students (“I was talking about the work!”) or penalising them for learning. There are lots of reasons why students may not be quiet right away:
- They have just figured something out and do not want to break their chain of thought
- They are in the middle of a really good discussion
- It takes them a bit longer to get their head around things and they are just grasping it
- Something has happened socially or outside of your lesson and they need to talk about it
- They are asking another student a question about the work
- They are helping another student with the work
Just a simple, “I know you are all busy with this but Nathan has just raised a really good point and I want to share it with you before you go any further” to the whole class or “I know what happened at break. You must be upset. Let’s push on with this now and then I can help sort it out at the end of the lesson” to an individual can help students understand why they need to be quiet and that you understand them.
Everybody loves a countdown. In my first weeks of teaching, my countdowns were so frequent (and ineffective) that my intelligent but troublesome girls’ class would shout ‘Happy New Year!’ at the end and then carry on talking. I learnt that countdowns are useless if they are fast and non-specific so slow the whole thing down, make sure the start of the countdown is heard, and let students know exactly what you want them to do by the time you get to zero. Here is an example:
“Right, back with me now year 8. Five…finishing our discussions…four…pens down…three…eyes up…excellent David’s table…two…mouths completely closed…even you, Sam…one…focused on me…half…just waiting on Molly’s table…super…and zero.”
Your most effective countdown will be your first; they become diluted when repeated so make sure you give your first countdown it’s best chance of working. This means that you will need to use ‘teacher seconds’ which are of an indeterminate length and can be split into any fraction you want.
For the countdown, go to your power position. For me, this is right in front of the board. Stand still. It is much harder for people to focus on what you are saying if you are moving. They focus on the movement instead.
As your countdowns become more effective, you shouldn’t need to get to zero and tell your students this:
“Five…eyes my way, pens down…four…don’t make me go all the way to zero…three…brilliant…no time wasted, well done.”
In a ‘fun’ twist, with younger classes or where fiddling is an issue, I add hand movements to the countdown so it is three (wiggling fingers high up – to show no pen in hands)…two (wiggling fingers lower down) and one (clap on the desk twice and cross arms). They will need a rehearsal. Too much silliness, can it. You could mix it with a bit of brain gym. Anything really to remove explicit focus from the fact that they are being compliant.
Spread the Power
If you use table groups, like I do, then you will have little helpers distributed around your classroom. When I set up group work, especially with younger classes, I will tell them how I plan to gain silence (buzzer, countdown, etc.) and that one person in the group needs to be on the look out for this and spread the word.
It is also worth getting students used to using the clock. It helps if you have a digital one in your room. This means that you can say, “When the clock gets to ___, you need to packed away and silent and looking my way.” You may need to break down this timeline for certain classes. It means that when you stand at the front tapping your watch (see non-verbal), the students will know why. They are in control of managing their time and their voices and this empowers them.
Ring the Alarm
Have something (a bell, a buzzer, a rainmaker, etc.) that signals quiet in your classroom. If you are a primary school or PE teacher, this is probably common practice. I move rooms a lot so I usually just make a noise which sometimes sounds a bit like a sheep. There is a certain amount of training required but usually “Right, when I make this noise, I have something important to say, so you need to stop talking and look my way. Okay, let’s practise…pretend you’re all talking…” is enough.
The noise or alarm is important because it is removed from you. It is not you asking for quiet, it is an inanimate object or noise signalling quiet and it is harder to be defiant towards a noise. Also worth remembering that the majority of students’ lives are governed by bells so it is familiar to them.
This links to the non-verbal strategies below but this is just a tool so that students know what is appropriate noise and what is not. You can be as creative as you want with this. I have had two in the past:
One was a laminated wheel separated into four parts: class, group, pair, individual. It was laminated so that we could write on it reminders about each type. For example, next to individual it would say “Silent” “Hands Up for Questions”. At the start of an activity I would move an arrow on the wheel to the activity type so we had reminders about noise. If the noise crept up during the activity, I would stop the class and say what the issue was using the wheel for reminders or, so the flow of the lesson was not interrupted, I would remind certain students with “Excellent Lara’s group, perfect group work voices. You are not disturbing the group next door.”
In the schools I have worked in, we have had coloured pages in our planners for use with AfL strategies. I use these in line with the wheel (and eventually they replaced the wheel) so that the students have, for example, a green page open when they were working individually. This is useful because, if a student is chatting during individual work, I can go over and say “What colour is your planner? And what does that mean? So is there a need for talking?” which helped reinforce the rules with the answers coming from the students.
The second one was like a thermometer and this was used to show noise level rising. It was separated into different colours and I would move the arrow as the noise rose. As this was usually during group work, the students would be prepped (see sharing the power) to spot the arrow rising and quieten their group down. There was lavish praise for keeping the arrow in the green.
You may also want to differentiate between ‘break time voices’ and ‘classroom voices’. I am lucky to be an English teacher and so different purposes and audiences of our own language is a part of our curriculum but do not feel that time dedicated to this outside of the English classroom is wasted, in fact, it’s pretty crucial.
Provide the class with a non-verbal signal that basically meant “Wow. You’re too noisy.” My chosen signal is a sort of calm flapping. When a student spots this, they spread the word that it is too noisy. It appears, when deep into group work, they are much more likely to see me flapping than hear me telling them to be quiet. The ones who see me like the idea of being the first in a silent club (a bit like wink murder) and then telling the others (see spread the power).
My other favourite non-verbal signal is the ‘standing waiting irritably for a bus’ look. This involves a look of disapproval (not anger) and checking my watch which suggests “I’m ready. Where are you?” This is to be twinned with other strategies and, unless well practised, doesn’t work too well on it’s own (you may find yourself waiting for that bus for some time).
As well as getting students to be quiet at certain points, you may also want them to focus on their body language for listening. I use silly phrases like “If your body slumps, so does your brain.” and “Your neck will hold your head up. Trust it.” You may want to add into your countdown instructions.
The best way to get silence when you want it is to plan and teach engaging lessons. This is because students will want to hear instructions and explanations so that they can move forward with the lesson. In reality, sometimes you plan lessons are not super engaging; they may just need to be a quick transfer of information or essay writing or something similar. You know this but the students do not. I use language which suggests pace and, thus, ‘we’re too busy for chat’. Here’s some ideas:
“Right, come in quickly and get your planners out. We have loads to get done today.”
“I’m ready. Dom’s ready. Lucy’s ready. Come on, we need everybody to be ready.”
“I know you have plenty to chat but we haven’t got time today – too much to do.”
“40 minutes left and 50 minutes work to do. We’re going to need to quieten down and push on.”
Once you have it, use it.
I have watched teachers gain silence from their classes only to use the silence poorly and lose it again. Students need to see the purpose of silence and that is because you have something useful (and succinct) to say. Make sure that once the class is quiet and looking at you, you have something good (and preferably positive) to say that motivates the students to be silent next time.
My final note is that I have never seen shhhhing work as a strategy for gaining silence from a noisy class. I am not saying it doesn’t work; I have just never seen it.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week and please add your own strategies in the comments to share with others.
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