Part of Tampa Prep’s summer reading requirement includes ASPIRE: A Summer Program in Reading Enrichment. Through ASPIRE, faculty and staff members may choose to sponsor a book that interests them (it may or may not have anything to do with their subject area). Students sign up for a book they are interested in, and at the end of the summer the mixed grade groups gather and discuss their book before school starts. When I decided to participate in ASPIRE and sponsor Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I was excited to stretch beyond my comfort zone.
You see, in the summer I enjoy reading fiction: beach reads, best sellers . . . books I typically do not have time to read during the school year. So Quiet, a science and psychology book about introversion, seemed like an out-of-character choice for me. Except, as I read the book, I found the author’s style accessible and relatable. I felt like it was written for me. To me. Here I was, often described as shy and reserved, reading what could have been the scientific study of my life.
As the end of summer neared and our ASPIRE discussion was looming, questions and doubt creeped in. What students would be drawn to this book? Fellow introverts, like me? Extroverts, trying to understand the “quiet kids"? How would I lead a discussion about being quiet?
Mrs. Harman, the teacher, stepped in and took charge. While I identify as an introvert, I have found ways over the years to push through my introversion to pursue my passion as an educator. I have adapted to be “on” during the school day, and seek quiet time after school to recharge for the next day. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. I truly know how the “quiet kids” feel, and you might be surprised by how many other teachers identify with this sentiment!
We regularly challenge our students in Harkness discussions**, knowing it will stretch them to find ways to navigate conversations and adapt, while also staying true to themselves. Teachers at Tampa Prep have worked to be mindful of introverts. Rather than simply asking students to jump into a discussion, we ask students to prepare in advance. Some teachers start with a writing prompt or informal topic to get everyone warmed up. Others use both large and small group work to encourage everyone to share their ideas. We recognize and try to celebrate the individual progress of each student throughout the year as they learn and grown in the Harkness classroom.
ASPIRE discussion day arrived. Our discussion group was thoughtful and active. We had a self-identified mix of extroverts, introverts, and ambiverts. With the diversity of the group, it was wonderful to see the more extroverted students defer to the quieter students, either by taking a break in the conversation or by asking a question. These are the same skills students learn in the Harkness classroom. In discussion, active listening is just as important as speaking. Learning how to ask a question, move a conversation forward, and disagree appropriately are all soft skills that serve students well beyond the walls of 727 West Cass Street.
As we discussed Quiet, we moved from highlighting our impressions of the book to how we can share our knowledge about the power of introverts. I was amazed by the students’ commitment to sharing what we discussed. How can we support introverts in a discussion-based classroom? How can we guide extroverts seeking to understand and connect with an introvert? The suggestions below come directly from our ASPIRE conversation, and can be applied to not just Harkness discussions, but other group settings such as team practices or big club meetings.
Top 5 Survival Tips for Students
START. Try it once!
Start small. Tell someone else you like what they had to say. (ex: “I agree with ___.”) Even a seemingly small statement of agreement speaks volumes. It shows the class and teacher that you are listening, and it validates the speaker.
Remember, you don’t have to change yourself to fit a mold or “become” more outspoken. Have your homework done, and write out possible answers or topics you can bring to the table. Record page numbers to easily find references to passages you feel are important to the discussion topics.
Use non-verbal cues to show that you are listening and gearing up to join the conversation. Make eye contact. Nod your head. Take notes. For extroverts, be mindful of your volume and velocity of speech. Introverts will be less likely to engage if other speakers are overly loud or fast-paced talkers.
Work on ways to bring unity to the group; encourage others to disagree appropriately and to keep an open mind.
Our group recommends this book to teachers, parents, or anyone, really. We all have to find our way in a chaotic, loud world. Especially to introverts, it feels like we are truly living in a world that won’t stop talking. Each of us left the discussion with a personal goal. For some, it was to try to move beyond the “small talk” to make real connections with others. For others, it was to attempt a suggested survival tip to improve their discussion skills in classes. However, the true take-away from our discussion was that we all have work to do. It is time to learn more about others; to embrace our differences; and to find ways to better understand those who communicate differently.
**Harkness refers to a method of teaching that was developed in the 1930s at the Phillips Exeter School in New Hampshire. In a Harkness class, learning takes place through discussions held around a circular “Harkness table.” Sitting at the table, all members of the class must question, contribute, and contemplate in order to learn and succeed. In general, Harkness teachers will minimize the amount of information and answers they give directly to their students. Instead, they will give their students’ resources in which the information and ideas can be found. At the very least, they will help their students locate the necessary resources. Because of this approach, students will experience the complex process of learning. Students who engage themselves with the Harkness class will finish with a sense of autonomy and empowerment, knowing that they know how to learn. Harkness students come away with the important understanding of the power and necessity of listening, as well as the skills needed in order to be effective listeners.