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Nurturing Introverts in the Classroom

Lists of rules for introverts have been floating around the Internet in recent weeks. These lists include such admonitions as 1) let them observe before speaking, 2) let them think and don’t demand instant answers, 3) respect their need for privacy, 4) don’t interrupt them, and 5) respect their introversion and don’t try to remake them into extroverts.

Reading these lists has got me thinking about introverts in the classroom. I don’t claim to know how to nurture introverts; I’m hoping this blog post can generate some discussion in the comments section as we think through this together.

As a student I thrived on classroom discussions. My favorite classes were the ones where I got to talk! What could be more fun? But once I became a teacher I quickly learned that not all students shared my enthusiasm and delight in public discussion.

My first job as a teacher was teaching an AP English class at a private Christian school. I had 7 of the top students in the school, and I was ready to dig deep with these kids. The last thing I wanted to do in the class was lecture every day. I didn’t just want to tell the students what the themes of the books were; I wanted them to learn how to think about literature, so I made class discussion a graded requirement for the class. In my mind, as a long as student kept up with the reading assignments, he’d have no problem participating in classroom discussion. I thought I was giving the students a fun and easy way to earn an A.

Six of my seven students were talkers. They needed little encouragement to get a lively discussion going. But there was one student who just wouldn’t open her mouth. I could see by the look in her eyes that she was tracking with the discussion and even enjoyed listening to the connections others were making, and I strongly suspected that she had her own interesting insights as well. But when I called on her, she always respectfully gave me the most minimal answer and then returned to her silence.

After reading her tests and her papers, I could see that she was the most brilliant student in the class and she often had profound insights into the works we were reading. I determined to try harder to get her to participate in discussion. She didn’t budge.

Eventually, I kept her after class one day and told her that I could tell that she was learning, so I was no longer going to call on her in class and try to make her join group discussions. She told me that none of her other teachers had ever given her the liberty to be silent and she thanked me.

And then a most remarkable thing happened. As the school year progressed and our class grew more intimate (as so often happens in a literature discussion group), my introvert started raising her hand and volunteering to talk. She never talked as much as the class extroverts, but she did talk a great deal more than I had expected.

Is this a pretty typical scenario with introverts? Are they more comfortable engaging when they’ve had time to observe and think and then speak when they feel ready rather than being forced to speak? I’m curious.

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