Monday, July 24, 2017

Especially If They Are Small And Quiet

It can be intimidating to speak before a group of people. I've seen surveys of American adults in which "speaking before an audience" emerged as our single greatest fear, coming in ahead of "death." When I first started teaching, one of my bedrock principles was that I would never compel a child to speak up during circle time. If they didn't raise their hand or otherwise indicate they wanted a turn to speak, I would not call on them. I wanted to respect their right to silence in front of the larger group. If I wanted their input on something I would track them down later and get it one-on-one.

One day, however, a mother pulled me aside to say that her three-year-old son regularly complained that he never got to speak at circle time and requested that I please call on him, even if he didn't raise his hand. It seemed wrong to me, I told her that, but she insisted, so the following day as we were discussing bloody owies, I asked, "Aidan, do you have something to say?" And he did. From that day forward I would call on him, unsolicited, when we were engaged in circle time discussions and he always had something to say.

Most people who know me are shocked when I tell them that every Meyers-Briggs test I've ever taken has classified me as an introvert. I tend to be outgoing in social circumstances. I speak daily in front of the classroom, which includes an audience of both children and adults (in the form of parent-teachers), and I regularly go on the road to speak before audiences of anywhere from 20 to 500. These are not the behaviors we typically associate with that personality type. In common usage, we mistakenly conflate "introversion" with "shyness," but there's more to it than that. It has much more to do with where one gets one's energy: the extrovert is energized by interacting with others while the introvert tends to find social situations to be draining and must regularly retire into solitude to recharge. Obviously, it's not that simple, but find it is true for me, even as I am what one might label a "highly functioning" social introvert.

We live in a society that tends to value the traits that come more naturally to extroverts: outgoingness, enthusiasm for social settings, and, indeed, speaking before an audience. Not only that but the ability to do so is a life skill with many advantages. A man I know, told me that he initially chose a career in engineering at least in part because of his introversion, but that as he advanced, he was increasingly called on to speak before boards, panels, and even entire conferences because of his expertise. "I had to learn how to do it. It was the hardest part of my job, but I have to say that by the time I retired, I was pretty darned good."

I still don't compel children to speak before an audience, but I try to provide varied and daily opportunities to do so, be it during our proper circle time or during informal gatherings around the snack table, always trying to mix up the invitations to speak, to have every voice be heard because it isn't "our" community until that happens. It comes naturally for some kids and is the hardest thing in the world for others which is true about most of the important things in life. School is a place to work on those things that are hard and for many, speaking before others is the hardest, most frightening thing of all. My job isn't to urge or cajole, but rather to create a variety of opportunities, to allow the time, and to value contributions of all kinds, especially if they are small and quiet.

Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .

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