On Productive Silence: How Giving My Students the Space to Think Improved Engagement and Learning

Student-teaching is over. We submitted our final essays on To Kill a Mockingbird, and all that is left is to watch the movie, and do end-of-the-year stuff next week. Now that I’m here, I can finally stop and reflect on what I’ve done over the past few months– my trial run if you will. I changed many procedural items, from the expectations of the do-now to the formative and summative assessments, but the biggest change was how we interacted with the text.


Breaking up a Big Text: What Teacher Prep Taught me

We only have a class set of novels, so all reading has to be done in class. And seeing as To Kill a Mockingbird is almost 400 pages, and rather slow for the first 150 pages, (and unfortunately many of the students are not fluent decoders or on grade level for reading comprehension) this seemed a daunting task.

To break up the text, the original route we took was to use many of the strategies suggested in my reading methods class: substituting a graphic novel, using summaries from Sparknotes instead of reading the original text, and having students read in groups from a play-like script.

During all of these activities, the room was fairly loud, or if we did read the original text, students had their heads down, totally unengaged. During “group” reading, students who were not interested in the book engaged in off-task behavior, while the students who wanted to focus found that they couldn’t. Many students told me:

“When we read like this [groups, graphic novel] I have no idea what is going on”

“This is so confusing”

“Why can’t we just read the book”

or they skipped the substituted activity and read the original text anyway. Students also had conceptual questions that they were to answer independently after reading with minimal help from the teacher. Talking with a partner during these activities, whether on-task or not, was allowed so long as they turned in the questions.

Often, we’re taught that noise and movement means that students are learning and engaged. I disagree, and so did the work that students were turning in.


When Everyone’s Writing, Everyone is Engaged

Because of the quality of student learning output, I decided to implement strategies from Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered, namely, text-dependent questions, close reading, and imbedded non-fiction. (I figured, why not, because the students in a student-teacher’s classrooms aren’t really expected to learn anything anyway).

In addition to increasing the amount of writing students were doing, I either read aloud from the novel, used control-the-game reading for the non-fiction articles, or we listened to the audiobook– I did away with the graphic novel, “group” reading, and other substitutions for the original text (students were always welcome to read the graphic novel).

The Stop-and-Jot Text Dependent Question

If students were listening to me read or the audiobook’s narrator, I stopped every few pages to prompt students to respond to text dependent questions. The first time I implemented this strategy, I noticed something new. Whereas normally most students would just have their heads down and not follow long in the printed text, this time, I saw the majority of students with books in their hands. When the narration required a page turn, I heard a *swish* of pages being turned. When I paused the narration to pose the question, I saw eyes look up from the books, take time to think, and begin writing*.

Writing Cycles: Read-Write-Discuss… Then Revise

As students began writing, I saw many whisper to their table mates, nod their heads, erase something and begin writing again– this was part of the think-write-pair-share technique I started using. I had students raising their hand for the first time asking questions, wanting to comprehend.

This was the most engaged I had seen them, and it only increased with time. Frequently, we would learn something one day, read a nonfiction paired text (or video) to complicate

Screen Shot 2019-06-02 at 2.47.49 PM
A read-write-discuss-revise cycle

and deepen their initial understanding, and then go back and revise.

When I compare these writing exercises to their previous writings, the benefits of a literacy-dense and knowledge-rich classroom were apparent. ‪During all of these activities, there is little to no off-task noise. Students are reading, thinking, and writing about the novel, with the occasional hum of focused soft chatter.  

Engagement or Edutainment?

Mike Schmoker wrote in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning that direct, explicit instruction is the most efficient and best method for teaching novice learners. I would also wager that classrooms that use direct instruction, like mine, are some of the most engaging. Unlike what NCTE will have us think, we do not need games to help us enliven learning. Directed discourse and literacy-based lessons around a coherent, knowledge-rich common curriculum will enliven learning on its own.

My class probably looks boring on the surface: students reading the same book, writing about the same things, in a relatively silent classroom. ‬‪You may have even heard some groans from students when I first used the strategy (that was my fault– I had too many stops which interrupted the flow of the story, a rookie move, but I’m still learning).

The quality of their work, however speaks for itself, and the learning output in their summative essays showed the knowledge that was built over the course of 2 months (plus several students commenting that they actually liked the book because of how I taught it was a major plus). 

I’m “just a pre-service teacher” as a 30 year veteran teacher and education consultant so basely described me, but anecdotally speaking, I have evidence that this literacy-dense and communal learning approach works. My students and cooperating teachers agree.

I’m on twitter. 


A student’s first draft of a body paragraph for their essay. This is the second essay they’ve written in their middle school career.

* We also had a few whole class discussions around issues in the text. Sometimes it came up organically after a do-now or it was planned.





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