It was the noisiest classroom ever. During my 11 years in education, I’d never encountered a chattier middle school math class. They yelled across the room to a friend if the mood struck them. While I taught, they’d turn around and start conversations with their peers. They were always talking.
Even though they were in need of some serious math support, I couldn’t seem to get through a lesson without major interruptions. I tried redirection, shushing, and turning my teacher face up to 11. I made jokes and tried different groupings and seating arrangements. My favorite group activities and games led to even more talking.
None of it worked.
Finally, I decided to embrace their chattiness, and then I harnessed it for good. It was the day I stopped the shushing. And believe it or not, their conversations actually started shifting to math! Here’s how I did it …
I used some some good old-fashioned bribing.
I’m not above using the occasional small treat to motivate students, if necessary. For this class, I cut up Twizzlers into one-inch pieces and told them I was looking to reward active participation.
While I could have only rewarded quiet students, I knew complete silence was not possible for this group. Instead, I wanted to redirect their conversations toward their work and away from idle chatter.
Before giving anything out, I described what active participation looked like in detail. Taking notes, asking on-topic questions, and completing the practice problems could all earn a piece of a Twizzler. Yes, even if they occasionally talked to their neighbor.
They were never totally silent, but they were mostly on task, and the chatter subsided. It was our most productive class period yet!
Some teachers may disagree with using external reinforcements, like food. However, I have yet to find another small incentive that yields so much initial motivation from students. Twizzlers were only a first step in my plan, though.
I connected with my students first, and then I redirected them.
We could have kept on with the Twizzlers forever, but I didn’t want to risk them losing their appeal. Instead, I found something more lasting: connecting with students and then redirecting them.
It’s simple, really. We all want to be seen and heard, even if it’s by the mean lady making us do math. I made a point of connecting with every student in my class daily. We would share a quick word or a story, and then we got back to work.
By building relationships with individual students and the class as a whole, I leveraged their trust when I needed them to quiet down or be especially focused, like the day before a big test.
I praised the behavior I wanted, and yes, I allowed some talking.
Now that I had shifted the conversation to academics and built positive relationships with my students, it was time to actively reinforce the behaviors I wanted to see. If my class was working quietly—or maybe they weren’t quiet but were still on task—I let them know they were doing well. I pointed out when they put in a lot of effort and noticed when they were working cooperatively.
A few months later, I asked students if they were learning more now that they were talking less. Most agreed that they were better off without so much chatting. Even a sheepish shrug of agreement from a few students told me I was on the right track.
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