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Listen to my interview with Michael Linsin (transcript):

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In my first few years of teaching, student talking was like popcorn.

I gave the class instructions for some kind of work; let’s say journal writing. And for a few seconds, they did it. Things were quiet. Then, like that first kernel of popcorn, one student said she didn’t know what to write, so I walked over to her desk to help her. While we talked, two more raised their hands—two more pops—and said they were stuck, too. I signaled to them that I’d be over in a minute, but in the meantime, someone else was closing his journal, finished already. Another pop. The two who were stuck asked him what he wrote about.

The room needs to stay quiet so we can concentrate, I told them.

Someone else had a question. Another pop. I squatted by her desk, and behind me, a conversation started between two others. Pop pop. Another journal closed while a different hand went up.

Okay people, I said, this time louder. Let’s keep it down. And with rascally smiles, they turned back to their journals to pretend to write some more. At this point, it had turned into a game.

Someone needed to sharpen their pencil. Pop. Someone else decided to race them over to the sharpener. Pop. In a matter of seconds, the whole room had erupted, a huge hysterical bowl of popcorn, exploding all around me, and I couldn’t find my way out.

And then I yelled.

 

If this sounds anything like you, you’re not alone. I hear it from teachers all the time. One of the things they don’t teach us in our education courses is just how freaking much students talk, and how hard it can be to quiet them down in order to get anything accomplished.

To find solutions to this problem, I went to Michael Linsin, the creator of Smart Classroom Management and my go-to person for all classroom management needs. Last year, he taught us how to set up a clear, simple classroom management plan. Now he’s going to help us understand the causes of excessive talking, what you should be able to realistically expect from students, and how you can fix the problem.

Michael Linsin of Smart Classroom Management

 

First, two quick caveats.

One: I believe students need to talk. People need to talk. So if you’re shooting for a classroom environment where students sit silently and do rote seat work all day long, where they never have an opportunity to talk to their peers, where they never get out of their seats, and where the work is not engaging, you are going to have problems.

Two: A big part of good classroom management is building good relationships with your students. If you haven’t taken the time to get to know them as individuals, if you mispronounce their names, if you regularly use sarcasm or make them feel stupid for asking questions, then they aren’t going to want to behave well for you. And that’s a different problem.

So this post is based on the assumption that you’re planning engaging lessons and you have a decent relationship with your students. Without those two, these solutions might kind of work, but you’re still probably not going to love your job.

Why It’s Happening

Before you can solve this problem, you have to understand its cause. According to Linsin, excessive talking—talking that occurs during independent work time or direct instruction—happens for two reasons.

Reason 1: They don’t believe you mean it.

Despite the fact that you specifically tell students not to talk, deep down they don’t believe you mean it. “Or they don’t care,” Linsin says.

“At some point,” he explains, “Your authority has faded. If you’re able to teach to a quiet classroom in the beginning of the year and now you’re not able to, or if it happened right off the bat, then somehow at some point, the students’ respect for you and for the process, for the classroom, and your authority has faded.”

So even if they hear you, even if they understand that you want quiet at a certain time, they don’t believe anything negative will happen if they ignore your request. If they come to you with this behavior, it’s likely that it has just been part of their conditioning.

“Because so many teachers struggle with this problem,” Linsin explains, “many after a while kind of throw up their hands and just decide they’re going to talk over students, they’re going to do their best to keep things as quiet as possible during independent work time, so the students come to you (from) classrooms where the teacher asked them to be quiet but doesn’t really follow up on it.”

Reason 2: They don’t understand what “no talking” means.

This one is going to be harder for teachers to believe, but bear with us here: “No talking” may not mean exactly the same thing in different contexts, and if your students are talking more than you want them to, there’s a good chance you’re working with different definitions.

“When they come to your classroom,” Linsin explains, “and they’ve had teacher after teacher say the same thing, yet continue to allow it to happen in the classroom, then students think, Well, he or she just means we need to kind of keep our voices down, or We’re mostly quiet, but if we have important things to say to a neighbor, then we’re allowed to do that. And so they’re confused as to what the definition of ‘quiet’ really is.”

In many cases, Linsin notes, the problem is likely being caused by a combination of both of these reasons. But notice that neither reason is a blanket statement about students being disrespectful. This is why I like Linsin’s approach: He puts control for classroom management in the teacher’s hands, rather than placing blame on the student. That’s not to say that you won’t have disrespectful students, but shifting the blame to them means you have no power over the situation. Blaming the students simply isn’t a useful way to address the problem.

“When students are not doing something that you’ve previously taught them how to do,” Linsin says, “whether it’s talking or entering the classroom, and they don’t do it well, even though the students are responsible for their behavior, when most of the class is not doing what you ask, it’s on you. It’s about you. There’s some disconnect there, there’s something they’re not understanding.”

 

What You Should Be Able to Expect

Some teachers might wonder whether it’s reasonable to expect students to be quiet at all, especially if they are younger. Linsin says yes without hesitation. “You should absolutely expect, no matter where you’re teaching or what grade level, that the students are able to sit quietly while you’re giving instruction or directions, and they should be able to sit quietly and work during independent work times.”

Should there also be times when talking is permitted? “Absolutely,” Linsin says. “It’s really important to give students an opportunity to express themselves, to get up and move around, to work in groups and pairs and discuss. Classrooms should be vibrant and interesting, exciting places, and so I’m all for getting students up and moving and having fun. Those things just make classroom management stronger, and they free you to ask anything of your students, including silence.”

The Solution

If you came here looking for a few tricks to end excessive talking, the bad news is that you won’t find anything clever or earth-shattering. The good news is that the solution is pretty simple, and it requires no behavior charts, tokens, or Jolly Ranchers.

Step 1: Define expectations in explicit detail.

“The fix,” Linsin says, “is to define, in detail, exactly what you want during independent work time and when you’re teaching a directed lesson.”

If you believe you’ve already done this, and it hasn’t worked, the issue is probably lack of detail in your explanation. Linsin says you need to go far deeper than what most teachers probably do.

“So you may bring a desk or a table up in front of your classroom, sit down, and pretend to be a student. You may have other students acting as models also. Show students how you expect them to behave while you’re giving instruction, and then how you expect them to behave when they’re doing independent work.”

“It’s also important to include what not to do,” he adds. “So you’ll model those exact behaviors that you’re seeing, those exact talking behaviors, whether it’s side-talking or standing up and whispering to someone, or whatever your classroom looks like. Even if it’s chaotic, whatever that chaos looks like exactly, you want the students to be able to see themselves in your modeling and what isn’t okay.”

Step 2: Have students practice.

Once you’ve modeled the desired behavior, have students practice it, just like you’d have them practice any skill you’re teaching.

Linsin gives an example of what this might look like. You’d start by saying, “‘I’m going to give you 60 seconds, and I want you to show me what good listening looks like, and no talking. So let’s pretend I’m standing and giving you a lesson. I want to know what that looks like.’ And then you’ll stand and maybe you’ll cross your arms and put your hand under your chin, and you’ll watch them.”

Keep this instruction light, he says. Keep it fun. “You’ll stare at them and you’ll walk around the room, and you’ll watch one of them, and you’ll nod your head and say, ‘Mmhmm, okay, that looks good. Mmhmm. Chin up a little higher!’ It’s okay to have fun with it. None of this is a punishment. It’s just good teaching. Whether you’re teaching how to find a topic sentence or how you want your students to line up before recess, it’s all teaching. So it’s okay to have fun with it. It’s okay for them to laugh at some of the things you say or to see themselves in the behaviors, which they love, by the way, especially if you exaggerate it and have some fun with it.”

The Sign Strategy: Students are often put in an awkward position when a classmate tries to talk to them during these quiet times. They want to follow your guidelines, but they also don’t want to be rude to a classmate. Agree on some kind of physical sign they can give each other at these times. “It can be a scissors or peace sign or whatever’s culturally acceptable wherever you teach. And all they do is just hold the sign up, and the sign means, ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to listen to the lesson,’ or ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to do my work.’ And you can tell them that if they give the sign and that student who sees the sign turns and gets back to work, you will not enforce a consequence, because they’re showing responsible behavior.”

 

Step 3: Teach the consequences.

“Walk them through the exact steps that would happen if they turn and talk to a neighbor, for example,” Linsin says. “The exact steps a misbehaving student would take from your initial warning to contacting parents or whatever your consequences look like.”

In order to do this, you have to know what your consequences are. Spend some time making sure you’re clear on that. If you need help, read our post on creating a classroom management plan.

Step 4: Do it for real.

Once students have been taught your expectations and have practiced exactly what they look like, it’s time to apply it in a real lesson. “Have a directed lesson ready,” Linsin advises, “to have them prove to you they can do it in practice.”

If you’ve taught the expectations in detail, students should do a good job, but if they don’t, you need to enforce your consequences exactly as you described. “You almost hope during that first wonderful lesson, that one student maybe turns, and so the class can see that you’re holding them accountable.”

If enforcing your consequences is difficult for you—and for many teachers, it will be—read Linsin’s post on why teachers struggle to consistently enforce consequences.

 

Step 5: Continue to define expectations in small chunks.

This last step is crucial. From this point forward, keep telling students what is expected of them before every switch in classroom activity. When you are about to do group work, let students know that talking within the group is okay. If you then switch to independent work, remind them that absolute quiet will be expected. Briefly describe what that will look like, even spelling out what not to do if that fits the activity.

Taking time to do this might seem unnecessary, but being clear ahead of time will prevent problems. “Anytime you can give a reminder before misbehavior,” Linsin says, “it’s a good thing. Anytime you give a reminder after you see misbehavior, it’s a bad thing. You should be holding students accountable, but be preemptive whenever you can.”

 


Learn More from Michael Linsin

The Happy Teacher Habits


(Links to this book are Amazon Affiliate links, which means I get a small commission on purchases you make through my links at no additional cost to you.)


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17 Comments

  1. Carol Propp says:

    I have the opposite problem with my seniors who I had as juniors they will not talk or discuss when I open it up to a classroom discussion. Last year I tried so many different strategies with them and this year we’re right back there with me hearing crickets even after I’ve asked them to talk with a partner first and then when we come back to the whole class discussion nothing happens . Feeling frustrated!

    • Audrey Feitor says:

      I’m not sure what you’ve tried so this might all be moot. I teach seniors as well. Most love talking but some prefer to hide. First off, I state the expectation that all must speak, especially if they are being graded as an individual and/or a group. I give lots of support prior to them speaking to help with confidence. I circulate around the groups and give feedback and support.
      Depending on the activity, I do random picking of who starts talking. Pick a name randomly, etc. Then do not move forward until they have spoken. Also, asking open-ended questions instead of closed ones. I’m sure that’s what you’re doing.
      Can you give a specific example of an activity that you do?

      • Shain says:

        I’m a fan of random picking, but only if it’s truly random. I use TeacherKit, but there are other apps that allow you to enter all your students’ names and then select one at the tap of a button. That way, no one can claim they are “getting picked on.” When a reluctant or quieter student is selected, I am not the bad guy. “It’s not me, blame the gods” or “Fate picked you!” Humor helps defuse student angst at times.

    • Mary says:

      Model to them how to have a discussion. Give them sentence starters and have them each write a reply, swap papers and respond back and forth. Have them pretend they are in a meeting and the “boss” needs something done ASAP. I tell my 8th graders they are getting ready for the real world whether it is high school, college, or going out to get a job.

    • Paul says:

      Have your students respond in writing. Then ask for the non-participators to share what they wrote. It might spur some conversation. Of course I have to heed my own advice!

  2. Heather Deputy says:

    Perhaps you could explain that each pair will share their discussion with the class, and then use a name picker app to select students to share. I’ve also found that contradicting a student quickly ignites conversation, especially from those students who agree with the student. Good luck!

  3. Audrey Feitor says:

    Thank you for the great article. Wondering how this would apply with students with 504’s and/or IEP’s who have trouble staying focused. I’m thinking an additional layer of signals between teacher and student?

  4. Thank you for these explicit steps to dealing with this tricky classroom issue. Just this week a teacher brought this up in a coaching session. I’m excited to share this post with her; to learn alongside and to support her and the students in the process.

  5. I have a different situation. This year I landed in a school that, unbeknownst to me, has absolutely no discipline plan at all. All the teachers talk over their students and give directions, so nobody can clearly hear anything, and no student is actually required to listen and follow directions. The school is also big on earning points for good behavior, except that everyone gets points for everything, so… I used Mr. Linsin’s techniques in my previous school. His “When I say go” approach to directions is really effective, but I’ve already been told not to use it this year. I’m stuck. But thanks for the reminder about this effective approach to teaching/learning appropriate behavior.

  6. Traywop says:

    Thank you so much for this podcast. This year I am struggling with talkative students (new school/new teacher). I know I let the ball drop in too many areas…plan on fixing tomorrow. Thank you.

  7. Elicia says:

    I found this post helpful, but as for Michael Linsin’s website that is promoted here, I found it highly problematic. The first two posts on his site that I cam across were steeped in whiteness and not sending the message that culturally relevant practice is the goal. The first post asks what to do when students question you “When you know they’re just trying to get under your skin.” How can we possibly know that a student questioning us is not actually valid because we are not teaching them in a way they need to be taught? I think this is a very dangerous ideology to be putting out there for a country of majority white educators. His next post was “How To Handle Disrespectful Students Who Don’t Know They’re Being Disrespectful” Don’t know they’re being disrespectful? Then they’re not being disrespectful! Not adhering to white cultural norms is not necessarily disrespect. This quote put me over the edge:
    “Disrespect appears to be on the rise—particularly among younger students. It’s important, however, to determine if the disrespect is intentional or a misunderstanding of the definition.

    Sadly, as surprising as it may seem, due to poor home and neighborhood influences many students just don’t know any better.”

    To promote a website that thinks and speaks this way about our students is harmful. We can explicitly teach our students what appropriate and inappropriate behavior look like in our classroom (after having examined the role and presence of whiteness in what we deem appropriate and inappropriate), but to label other behaviors as a misunderstanding of the definition of disrespect? There is no one definition of disrespect. That is code for misunderstanding the dominant white definition of disrespect.

    • Hi Elicia,

      I let this sit in moderation for a few days, waiting to find the time to write a thoughtful response.

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to share your concerns here. I think it’s important for all of us as educators to stay open to criticism and continue to grow, and the only way we can do that is to invite differing opinions. In all of the the posts I’ve read on Smart Classroom Management, I never saw anything that struck me as culturally insensitive. Michael’s approach has always been one of calm, respectful de-escalation, of not calling students out publicly, and of being clear with expectations and consistent in their implementation. In fact, the criticisms I’m used to seeing of his site are from teachers who don’t like the fact that he puts so much responsibility for classroom management on the teacher, when they feel students should share more of the responsibility.

      I think it’s interesting how people view things differently depending on their own lenses. When I read the examples of students being disrespectful in the article you referenced, I pictured white kids. In fact, throughout the whole article, I was picturing kids who have few rules at home and are kind of coddled by parents. And in my mind, those kids were privileged and white. So the notion that there was an underlying message of enforcing cultural norms never occurred to me.

      With that said, my own awareness has really grown in the last year of how white-centered so much of our culture is, so I want to leave room for that possibility on my own site, on Michael’s, and in plenty of other education spaces. I would like to hear what others think about this.

    • Malia Sebastian says:

      The way that I read the article on disrespect is that whatever the particular culture finds respectful or disrespectful needs to be taught to the students. I moved around a lot growing up including outside of the United States and learned about other cultures ideas of respect and disrespect. In one culture I lived in, it was VERY disrespectful to touch someone’s hair. It is very possible for a student to have no clue they are being disrespectful if they are from a different area or if they are a student who needs to be specifically taught how to socialize well with others. I can’t say if Michael Linsin had white people in mind when he wroteit or not. However, I thought the main idea could be taken and adapted to any culture. I always appreciated when someone explained to me what not to do or to do when I moved to a new culture.

      Thanks for bringing up your thoughts and ideas. I found them interesting and helped me look at the article from another point of view.

  8. Cindy Scarborough says:

    Enjoyed your listening to your interview with Michael Linsin. Some good points and suggestions. I especially liked the “sign” to classmates.

  9. Teresa says:

    My school has many second language learners and we use peer tutoring as a highly effective linguistic accommodation. So many times a student may ask her assigned peer tutor for help during direct teaching time. This could lead to others talking. Do you have any suggestions for managing this situation?

  10. Aimee says:

    This is a problem on our entire intermediate floor. Teachers have taught and retaught expectations, some more than others, and yet the problem persists. One of the issues we have is students’ proximity to one another. We have 29-34 students in each room with just enough desks to accommodate them and little to no room for anything else. They are on top of each other ALL day long, no matter what room they are in. When permitted to talk in group or partner work, volume then becomes an issue. Looking for any ideas/suggestions.

  11. Kathryn says:

    This was a fabulous article. So many practical tips/suggestions.

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