By Shira Loewenstein

If you would walk into my classroom on any given day, you would hear a lot of noise: children debating an idea, questioning another’s decision, or connecting what they were learning with what they were experiencing in their lives.

These same children had other classes, and in those classes, they were quiet. I used to wonder, ‘Do they have less respect for me? Do they think that they don’t NEED to be quiet in my classroom because I am not as serious as their other teachers? What should I change?’

When I recalled my own schooling, I tried to remember the feeling of respect that I would have for my teachers. What did their rooms feel like? Who did I respect the most? Which teachers were held in the highest esteem by my classmates?

I remembered the teachers we respected the most were the ones who let us think, debate, and connect to our own lives but who could always draw us back in. The classes where I learned the most, I didn’t soak up knowledge from someone else, but was an active participant in my learning. I am sure I was loud (my report cards will prove that), but when I really respected a teacher, I would stop my own musings to allow him/her to rein me back in and refocus my learning.

Now, I am often asked to work with groups of teachers in Jewish day schools on classroom management. They want to have the tightly organized classes that they see in videos on The Teaching Channel or on YouTube. I hear of teachers using candy, donuts, or prizes as incentive for good behavior (compliance) and writing names on the board, public behavior charts, and keeping kids in from recess for bad behavior (noncompliance). But as Alfie Kohn wrote:

“Threats and bribes can buy a short-term change in behavior, but they can never help kids develop a commitment to positive values. In a consequence-based classroom, students are led to ask, ‘What does she want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?’ In a reward-based classroom, they’re led to ask, ‘What does she want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?’” (Kohn, 1995)

What should we expect from our students, and what should our classrooms look like? Should our classrooms look different from what we see on the Teaching Channel? Do our students need to process language differently? What are children in our Jewish day schools learning at home about having a conversation and contributing to a discussion?

We all know that different cultures speak in different ways. What is seen as polite in one country would be an affront in another. What if our expectations of Jewish American children have been askew? Let’s look at what the expectations are in other parts of their lives, and see if our expectations of what our classrooms should look like are realistic.

A book called Dinner Talk analyzes the dinner conversations in Israeli homes and Jewish American homes, focusing mostly on the children’s participation, and the interaction between parents and children during dinner. Parents express that they expect their children to take an active role during dinner conversations. It is a universal value in the surveyed Jewish American homes that children should participate in a conversation. In fact, one mother stated “one of the things she would object to is for a child to ‘just sit there and kind of pout or really take no interest at all [in the talk.]’” (Blum-Kulka, pg 37) Jewish American parents expect their children to be active participants in conversations with adults, sharing what happened to them during the day, asking questions of their family members, and even commenting on conversations about big ideas and values.

When parents were asked if they felt their children should be quiet at any point, the expectations seemed to be that only when their comment was completely irrelevant or if they had nothing to contribute to the conversation  –  if they had no knowledge of the topic. But, the parents who said this then added, that children should be free to ask a question about the topic, even if they didn’t have anything valuable to contribute. (Blum-Kulka pg. 37–39)

Overall, Jewish American children take up 38% of the talking space at dinner time as compared to 31% participation by the father and 21% participation by the mother. (pg. 59) The expectation in the home is that children will be full, active participants in conversation and will contribute more to the conversation than either of their parents. So when they walk into a classroom, why would we expect them to hold less space than the teacher?

So how do we help Jewish Day School teachers to understand the value of noise and conversation? How do we empower teachers to allow their classrooms to be loud, boisterous places of learning? Teachers should feel empowered to allow their children to be active participants without feeling threatened that they are being ‘overpowered.’

Step 1: Set clear goals and expectations.

What do you expect your students to do and how will they get there? What do you hope to gain from today and from this week? What is acceptable and what is not? What are the red lines that can never be crossed?

Step 2: Make sure the content is engaging.

Teachers must plan their days and units with their actual students in mind. Always asking “What will Sam be doing during this part of the lesson?” and “How will Sarah react to this prompt?” Knowing each child as a learner, and planning accordingly, will help a teacher know that the students are active learners in each and every lesson.

Step 3: Be transparent with students, administrators, and parents.

What are you trying to accomplish? How will you get there? What help might you need to accomplish this? What are your own strengths and weaknesses and what are your non-negotiables that they should be aware of?

Step 4: Open your practice.

Find a colleague or two whom you trust and respect. Ask them to observe as you teach, or watch a video of your classroom. Share student work with them. Run your ideas by them, and test out new theories.

Understanding that the classroom is not about the teacher and not about control or management is the first step to achieving success. There is no need to bribe or threaten children. They want to contribute to their own learning; they have been prepared at home to be active participants in conversations with their peers and adults. They know what they need to be successful, and it is our job as teachers to construct environments that allow them to use these skills to learn.

Shira Loewenstein is the Program Director: Teacher and Leadership Development, Prizmah School Services. This article was originally posted in the Prizmah email newsletter (click to sign up). It is reposted with the author’s permission.

Bibliography

Blum-Kulka, S. (1997). Dinner talk: Cultural patterns of sociability and socialization in family discourse. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Assoc.

Kohn, A. (1995, October-November). Discipline Is The Problem — Not The Solution. Learning Magazine.