Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Loud Is Your Classroom?

Next week is my first formal observation (we have two per year as tenured teachers). The administrator observing me is pretty new to our building. I’m getting to know her and she’s stopped into my room a few times just to chat with the kids, but she’s never observed me before. When completing my pre-observation questionnaire, I always pause at the question: “Is there anything else you want me to know about your classroom?” but I especially give pause if it’s a new administrator coming into my room.

After a few moments, I write, “My room is kind of loud. In the forty minutes you are with me, you will experience periods where there is lots and lots of talking. Please know, that this is how I like it. When they are talking, I know they are learning. Yes, you will hear, ‘What are you wearing to the dance on Friday?’ and ‘Are you going to the game tonight?’ But, if you focus on everything they say between those statements, you can see that their talking leads to learning. They are sorting out their thoughts, using the words of their peers to build their own thinking, using others’ ideas to fill in the gaps of their own understanding. They are looking for assurance that others think similarly to them. They are learning to gain confidence in and defend themselves when someone doesn’t agree. This cannot be done in silence. Please know, I create and encourage the space where this can happen. I know it can get a bit loud at times and I know that for some, the noise level can be a bit… uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry that it looks like I don’t have any control over them, but I’ve watched my classroom for years now and I know FOR SURE that their talking is a good sign that learning is happening.”

Two students reading and "text-mapping" together.

I didn’t always feel this way…

For a million reasons, my first few years of teaching were difficult. Looking back, I attribute much of that difficulty to my interpretations of my students’ behavior. See, I went to a small, Catholic school. One class each of grades K-8, with no room having more than 20 students. We wore uniforms. We went to weekly mass. We were issued demerits. We wrote our spelling words 3x each nightly (more for cursive practice than spelling practice). We all stood and greeted every adult who entered the room in unison (“Good morning, Sister Melanie”; “Good afternoon, Father Frank”). We walked in lines everywhere. We had no special education/basic skills/ESL (likely a result from no teachers or programs for such rather than a true assessment of our student body). And we didn’t talk – ever! Like ever, ever – unless directed to do so.

When I started my first real teaching job – 6th grade – in a public school, it was a bit of a shock to my system. My grade school experience, combined with that tricky little filter known as “nostalgia,” made me pretty uncomfortable with what I was seeing, or should I say hearing. In a word, my kids were LOUD. Loud, and with a seemingly endless verbal word count for a school day!

It didn’t seem to matter what I did: shhh-ing, asking politely, giving “the eyes,” reinforcing positive behaviors (“I like the way Johnny put his math books away and got out his reading books without talking.”), yelling, threatening, punishing. There seemed to be nothing that I could do that made the talking stop.

Now, I want to explain that it wasn’t that my students were being disrespectful. They weren’t ignoring me when I was standing in front of the class giving instructions. They’d sit quietly for that. They didn’t talk during tests (at least not often!). But, anytime – and I mean anytime – they saw a break in my talking, their mouths were moving.

And this drove me absolutely crazy.

You see, somewhere along the way, I fell under the impression that all-day-long silence meant I was in control, so therefore, their talking meant that I was not. And more than that, I believed that silence meant engagement and so their talking meant a lack thereof. As a teacher, especially a brand-new one, this was just simply the worst. I mean here I was, working my tail off to do a good job. I was staying at school until 6-7pm at night; I spent all day on Sundays lesson planning; I was reading professional books and working toward my Master’s. I was trying so hard, and I was failing. My students, though sweet as could be, were disengaged and running the show in my classroom.

I was so bothered at what I was seeing, that I invited our districts’ TLFs (Teaching and Learning Facilitators) into my room to observe. I wanted some help on getting them quiet, especially during their independent working time when I was pulling small groups. Instead, what I got was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher.

After observing for a few hours, we met to discuss what they saw. “You know,” one of the TLFs said, “I know the noise is bothering you, but have you ever stopped to listen to what they are saying?”

“Um, no,” I said. “Does it even matter? They chatter all the time. It’s got to stop.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I know that it’s making you uncomfortable, but I think if you stopped and listened to what they were saying, you’d be much happier about the noise level.”

The other TLF spoke. “I was walking around listening to the kids doing their workbook page while you met with your small group.” (This was during a math class.) She continued, “They were not off-task. In fact, each and every student I watched and heard was completely ON-TASK. They were working through the problems together. They were talking out their ideas on how to solve one complicated problem in particular. They were trying different strategies and comparing their results. They were using each other as tools to help them problem solve.”

“This is what you want to be happening in your classroom,” the first TLF responded. “What you are hearing is the sound of learning.”

The sound of learning. How does learning have a sound? I thought learning could only happen in your head, in silence. How can this be?

Students working on a Venn diagram and constructed response question together.

The next day, I didn’t pull any small groups. Instead, I gave their kids their independent work tasks and walked around listening. I was so surprised by what I heard. Sure, there were off-task comments, but a lot of what I was hearing was relevant to the activity they were doing. They were learning! They were engaged! And more, when I came across a kid who was sitting silently, more often than not s/he was staring off into space, completely disengaged from what was going on! Oh, the irony! The kids doing what I had thought was “right” were actually the ones that I needed to be worrying about!

My classroom hasn’t been the same since. Yes, there are times when the noise makes me uncomfortable… it’s so hard to shake a belief that’s been with you for most of your life, but mostly the noise makes me happy. I know now that the noise is what learning sounds like.

Two students writing collaboratively.

So, tell me about your classroom? What does learning sound like in your room? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!


  1. I completely understand that uncomfortable feeling when there is noise and thinking silence equals learning. I'm going to listen more in my room next week and see what I hear before I worry about shushing them. Great post!

  2. I've always allowed some talking during workshop or independent work. I actually encourage them to help each other so I can pull a small group. 2/3 of the students are usually always on task, but sometimes the noise level gets so loud that I can't help the small group I've pulled. So, I have to instruct them to keep their voices at a level one. If I can hear you from across the room AND make out exactly what you are saying then you are too loud. This has worked for 2 out of 3 of my ELA classes. Im still trying to figure things out for my last class. ��