Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School

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Every child should be graded on class participation -- and parents don't help their children when they argue otherwise.

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Next week marks the beginning of parent-teacher conferences. I can count on a few issues to come up: how I calculate grades, the degree to which I am willing to chase students for late work, and individual parents' expectations about the flow of information between school and home. But this year, I am hearing lot of questions about how to best educate introverted students and, specifically, the fairness of class participation grades.

I have experimented with many different grading strategies over the years, but class participation remains a constant in my grade book. It counts for a lot because we spend a large percentage of our of class time in dialogue. How does Pip change once he receives his Great Expectations? What does Edmund mean when he says, "Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound"?

When it comes time to assess my students' engagement with these questions, I could quiz them daily and force them to write reams about the topics I want them to consider. Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. I opt for a happy medium, and require a little bit of both.

This is no problem for the extroverts, who live for the opportunity to talk about their ideas. However, I also teach introverts, who live in fear of being asked these sorts of questions. There are a lot of students populating the middle ground, of course, but I don't tend to hear from those students' parents at conference time. The parents of introverts complain that I am not meeting their child's unspoken educational needs, or that I am causing serious emotional trauma by requiring their child to speak up in school.

I am aware that as an extrovert, I naturally teach to and understand the needs of extroverts. Consequently, I have worked very hard to research and implement teaching strategies that work for introverted students. I have a personal interest in the subject as well, as I am married to one introvert and mother to another.

Thankfully, there's more information on introverts out there than ever before. I tapped into my amazing personal learning network of educators and gathered a towering pile of books on my nightstand, topped by Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. In her book, Cain champions the often-overlooked talents and gifts of introverts, and offers parents and educators strategies for communication and evaluation. This year, I drew on this advice and made a number of changes to my classroom in order to improve learning opportunities for my introverted students.

In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.

Dr. Kendall Hoyt -- introvert, assistant professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School -- agrees. "You don't get a pass for your personality type. I understand that social anxiety is a real thing - I am an introvert, and my mother used to actually faint if she had to do public speaking - but part of my job as a teacher is to teach people how to articulate and be heard."

Hoyt applies this same philosophy to her own children, both introverts. She and her babysitter have constructed elaborate social scavenger hunts for the children, games that require them to approach strangers, look them in the eye, and ask for whatever the game requires - directions, information, or signatures.

When I asked her why she puts so much effort into her children's ability to communicate with strangers, she answered, "In order to be effective in this world, you must be able to communicate. If you can't speak up for yourself, if you can't muster the courage to tell the person you love that you love them, if you can't advocate for your own safety, the world will be a very intimidating and frightening place. I don't want my kids to be intimidated by the world."

When a parent tells me that his or her child is simply not capable of communicating educational and emotional needs, I see a child even more in need of mastering interpersonal communication. I'm not talking about the value of communication as it relates to grades here; I am talking about the value of communication as it relates to personal health, happiness, and safety. A student who is unwilling to stand up for herself and tell me that she does not understand the difference between an adverb and a verb is also less likely to stand up for herself if she is being harassed or pressured in other areas of her life.

Thanks to my students, Hoyt, and the reams of literature and research on introverts, I have a newfound respect for the people in my life who are less apt to jump into the fray of class discussion. But I also know that sometimes it's important - even imperative - to speak up for one's self. Cain starts her book Quiet with the example of Rosa Parks and the historic "No" she gave the bus driver who asked her to move to the back of the bus. Cain reports that, according to her obituary, Parks was an introvert. And yet that introvert spoke up and claimed her rightful place in the world. In honor of Rosa Parks, Susan Cain, and the many introverted students under my tutelage, I will continue to encourage them to find their voices.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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