Resolved: Drake is a better rapper than Lil’ Wayne.
Carlos – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
Ralph: WHAT!? Pro? I can’t argue for a lie!
Carlos: Oh, you’re going down!
That’s that way it goes. First card I draw is pro, second card is con. Get ready Ralph, you’ve got 30 seconds. Go!
Ralph then proceeds to deftly tear down his favorite rapper using every possible negative argument he can come up with off the top of his head in 30 seconds. The class roars their approval. Carlos’ rebuttal in support of Lil’ Wayne doesn’t hold up and Ralph wins the mini-debate to another round of cheers and applause.
Resolved: Soccer is more popular than Football.
Khadija – Pro
Elma – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
Resolved: Singing is harder than dancing.
Anna – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
After each 30 second statement for one side or the other students cheer, laugh, and congratulate each other. Expertly delivered lines receive additional cheers mid-statement. Everyone is having a good time and the kids are hooked on public speaking.
Abruptly, the classroom door opens.
“Mr. McCormick? My class next door is doing an in-class writing assignment and they need a quiet environment. Your class is disturbing them and they can’t stay focused. Keep it down please.”
A fair point I thought. We had been pretty loud. I tell the class that: “while we’re doing well and I love everyone’s energy, we need to keep it down a bit so the class next door can write.”
This lasted for about five minutes before we were shushed by my colleague again. Through the 50 minute period we ended up getting asked to quiet down five or six times so that the class next door could complete their writing assignment. My students made efforts to keep the volume down to 3 or 4, but every time someone did well with a debate or delivered a strong line they shot right back up to 10.
Keep it down!
Were we disturbing the other students and their learning environment? Likely. The school’s walls aren’t that thick and it’s generally pretty easy to hear a loud teacher or movie through the wall, so I’m sure a class full of thirty cheering students carried straight through. Each classroom is one piece of a larger school community so while it is critical that each teacher and each classroom operate in ways that serve their students, they must do so without preventing other classrooms from doing the same.
What happens then when two different learning styles or teaching methodologies rub against each other in conflict?
In this case my 10th grade AVID class was engaged in public speaking practice. Public speaking by its very nature is not a silent activity. In this case we were performing no-prep 30-second debates to work on quick thinking, argument building, and presence in front of the class and the class was into it.
All my students were actively engaged, they listened to their peers, and they provided just-in-time peer feedback. Unfortunately, we were also disturbing our neighbors and disrupting the larger social contract of the school in the process.
An important contextual note: AVID is an elective course that selectively targets students who are traditionally underrepresented in college. There is no single factor to determine eligibility, however, identifying factors often include a student’s race, ethnic background, family history of college attendance, socioeconomic status, test scores, and grades. AVID specifically targets students near the “academic middle” and helps them develop skills and practices to finish high school in a position where they are equipped to enter, and succeed in, college. As a result the population of the AVID class was significantly less white and lower income than the average for this suburban high school and shared many similarities with a more urban classroom comprised of neoindigenous students.
Our neighboring class was 9th grade Gifted English. Students were required to score very high on a district test in order to be eligible to enroll in the gifted program. I was a new teacher at the school and my neighbor was a highly respected veteran. When she entered my classroom and asked me to keep my class quiet my colleague was (intentionally or unintentionally) exercising a power dynamic that prioritized her students’ quiet learning over my students’ loud learning.
Keep it down?
At first glance it would appear that if every class is quiet then all students will learn; no learning will be disturbed. My initial assessment in the moment confirmed this idea.
That concept is only true, however, if every student learns best in a quiet environment. The information before me on that day showed this assumption to be false. My students were interacting directly with their peers’ words and providing high levels of peer feedback in the form of cheers, applause, and other emotive reactions. My class was learning more effectively in a loud environment than I’d previously seen from them in a quiet environment. The speakers were getting more timely feedback on their speaking skills from the class than I could have ever delivered on my own. Every student had multiple chances to debate and practice. By changing the classroom environment to transform that class into a quiet space I was complicit in disrupting my students’ learning in favor of the class next door.
This perpetuated the structure by which those who learn best in a quiet “traditional” school environment receive preferential treatment to those students whose preferred modes of learning do not conform to those “traditional” models. In this specific case wealthier white, South Asian, and East-Asian students were provided preferential treatment over their lower-income Latino/a, black, and Southeast-Asian peers. This particular interaction was a microcosm for the way broader school culture preferentially serves some students more effectively than others.
To further complicate the matter, it is quite possible that teaching exclusively in a “traditional” manner that prioritizes quiet individual work does a disservice to students who prefer that model. The quiet seatwork, lecture, or test-taking model of education is a far cry from the reality of the working world across nearly every field. There is very little of working life that includes listening to lectures or taking tests. In order for our students to be successful when they leave school they need to be able to perform at high levels even when they work day to day in a fast-paced, collaborative, often noisy, work environment.
Complaints are easy young man, solutions are harder.
This interaction had lasting impact on my students’ learning and my own pedagogical decisions. For my students it was an additional cue that their preferred modes of learning exist in conflict with expectation – another example of how they don’t belong. For myself, I intentionally shied away from lesson structures where students would get “too loud” for fear of being reprimanded again. As a result, even though I had the skills and knowledge to replicate the learning environment that created high levels of learning and engagement during the mini-debates, I never repeated that success for the rest of the year because I did not want to rub up against the dominant definition of a good lesson and a well-controlled classroom. I was scared of being reprimanded or judged.
So how do we solve this? How do we create schools and classrooms that accept and value students’ range of learning? Yes, there is plenty of work on multiple intelligences and universal design for learning that highlight the importance of designing learning opportunities that allow all students to leverage their strengths and to shore up their weaknesses. This cannot be reality until the larger structure values that diversity in such a way that one group of students, typically neoindigenous students of color, is no longer asked to continually subordinate their preferred mode of learning to that of other students. These various modes of learning need to be explicitly valued in multiple ways.
One option is to leverage the physical space to allow flexibility. When we design schools we can create spaces that include thicker or soundproof walls so that my loud class doesn’t disturb your quiet class. We can include furniture that moves easily to allow for quicker transitions between seating arrangements from rows, to groups, to a circle. A flexible space would help all teachers and make the creative pedagogy we desire more accessible on a regular basis.
Additionally, school leaders can explicitly validate a range of instructional methods. In my experience with the mini-debates I was immediately concerned that my loud class would reflect poorly on my skills as a new educator. What if my neighbor complained to the principal? Would I be able to keep my job? Would the principal say I had weak classroom management in my review?
The situation could have played out differently if I had more explicit support from my leadership that these methods were valued. In hindsight I think my leadership was supportive, but in the moment I experienced a conflict between my students’ engagement, my neighbor’s sense of disruption, and the power dynamics of the expected learning environment. If we want to fully educate each student that enters our schools we need to create spaces that validate their identities while also creating avenues of access this can be done if educators across all levels of the system are willing to rethink our basic assumptions of how students learn and what that learning looks like.