Differentiated Instruction

An Introvert in a 21st Century Skills-Driven Classroom

The headphones and book I always carry within arms reach?  Not just to entertain me, but to keep me from having to engage in random small talk conversation.

The U-shaped format for my classroom desks?  Not just to facilitate conversation among my students, but to give me enough personal space to breathe easily in a room filled with people.

The 45-minute afternoon nap I take after working with a school district all day?  Not just because I am exhausted after throwing all my energy and positivity into a presentation, but to find my balance again so I am not cranky for the rest of the evening.

The beautiful, light piano music that plays every time my cell phone rings?  Oh, wait.  I never hear it because my phone is always on silent.  Leave a message and I’ll call you back when I have the answer to your question or know what you want to talk about.

You are a teacher!  You have presented at conferences! You talk to and with people all day long!  You cannot possibly be an introvert!

But, I am – and the rising popularity of books and articles (Marti Laney’s book “The Introverted Advantage”, Susan Cain’s book “Quiet”, Carolyn Gregoire’s Huffington Post article) on what it means to be an introvert continues to remind me.  Through understanding, introversion is no longer seen as a “personality disorder”, but as an end-post of a personality continuum (Introvert – Ambivert – Extrovert) that is dependent upon a number of factors: Are you energized by solitude or by large groups? Do you need time to process information and gather your thoughts?  How do you feel about making small talk with others?  Do you enjoy phone conversations?  Do you look forward to engaging in deep, abstract conversations?

I love to collaborate.  I love to communicate.  I love people; I really do.  But, if as an adult, I have developed coping strategies for living in a country where extroversion is more the norm… how are our students faring, especially if they have not recognized that they lean more toward the introverted side of the Introverted-Extroverted Continuum?

As an introvert and a strong advocate for 21st century teaching and learning, I can’t help but think about how classroom teachers are now encouraged to foster collaboration and communication.  How do we cultivate a natural fit between the two that creates a safe learning environment for all?

I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to support the introverted student in your class (beyond helping them develop their own coping strategies for daily life).

1.  Seating – I understand that it is easier to put students in alphabetical order when creating seating charts.  But I like to sit in the back or near the edge so I feel I have room to “breathe”.  I was once seated in the front middle seat because of my name and the teacher taught the class standing three inches from my desk; all I could focus on that year was devising methods of escape.  Please allow me to select my own seat with the understanding that if there is a disruption to the learning process, you will rearrange.  Besides, you can learn a lot about a student by watching where, and near whom, he or she sits.

2.  Icebreakers – I understand the value icebreakers to foster a sense of community, and I admit that it DOES get better once you get started.   But, as soon as I hear that word, I want to slink to the floor and crawl to the door.  To keep me in my seat, to encourage participation, and to prevent me from leaving for an unnecessary bathroom/coffee/water/food/phone call break, don’t tell me to “find a partner you don’t know”.  Please pair me up with someone randomly by counting us off, using playing cards with numbers, pulling popsicle sticks with names… anything.

3.  “Turn and Talk” – I understand the need to formatively assess how students are processing the information and to check for clarity by sharing it out, but I need time to internalize and sort through information on my own.  If you gave me two minutes to collect my thoughts or even allow me to write them down, I will be better prepared to share with a partner what I have learned.  The concept of “Think, Pair, Share” works much better for me.  Please give me the time to “think” and organize the array of thoughts racing through my head.

4.  Group Projects – I understand the importance of learning how to collaborate in a group, divide up roles, share ownership, and negotiate ideas.  But sometimes I like to do projects independently instead of being forced into a group.  I’d love the occasional opportunity to “work with a group/partner or work independently” – even if this means I will have “more” work to do on my own.  Please give me a choice occasionally.

5.  Participation Points – I understand, and appreciate, that you want everyone to be involved and to have an opportunity to share his or her thoughts.  I realize that participation points are one way to encourage this.  Check out my body language, notice my eye contact on you, see that I am taking notes and listening to what is being said, use a polling system in class (polleverywhere.com, mini whiteboards, thumbs up/down), or ask me to turn in an exit slip before leaving class.  Please recognize that I can be participating and actively processing discussions and activities without having to speak out loud.

Introverted students constitute one-quarter to one-half of your classroom.  Just as we differentiate our instruction for student learning styles, interests, and needs, so should we consider differentiating for this trait that impacts how we process and respond to information and our environments.  As teachers, it requires an awareness of how others learn and respond to stimuli along with slight modifications in the teaching and learning strategies employed in our classrooms.  A little shift can go a long way.

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