Some of my students don’t talk. At all.
At first I thought they were just extremely shy and I tried to be patient with them. I figured they only needed a little time to warm up to me. So each week, I’d spend the 50-minute class having a conversation with myself as my five junior high school students stared at their notebooks in a meditative silence.
Our ‘conversations’ would go something like this:
Me: Soooo, what are your hobbies?
Me: What do you like to do for fun?
Me: Do you like to read? (mime reading a book). Do you like to play basketball? (mime playing basketball).
After a month or two of these conversations, I grew bored. And tired. And more than a little irritated.
Me: Do you like to play basketball? Yes or No.
Me: Yes? No? Someone. Anyone.
Me: Do. you. like. to. play. basketball? Please say yes or no.
Now it’s six months later and they still aren’t talking. Although I must admit, there’s been a little improvement. Now if I ask a yes or no question, one of my 15-year-old students has started to move his head in a way that vaguely resembles a nod. When he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll sort of slowly, very slightly tilt his head to the side. And if the answer is yes, he’ll tilt his head back and blink at me. I swear, that’s about the extent of it.
Can you imagine trying to conduct a class this way? And these are freakin conversation classes, too.
I tried to play hangman with them the other day, but they were too shy to even write down their guesses, let alone actually say anything out loud. I nearly lost it. I called on individual students and then just sat there staring at them expectantly.”Say a letter. Say ‘a’. Say ‘b’. Any letter. Say it. Please.”
But then the seconds drew out to minutes while the class sat watching a spider crawl up the wall, their faces completely blank…and I knew that I wasn’t going to break them. So I went back to doing grammar exercises from the text book.
Then, yesterday, it all sort of came to a head. One of my six-year-old students had thrown rocks at me while I was trying to get a coffee out of the vending machine. So I was already feeling disrespected and mistreated when I walked into the classroom, and in about as cheerful of a voice I could muster, asked the students: How are you?
Simple question. Simple answer. Fine, good, ok, so-so…anything would have been acceptable. Instead I got room full of poker face stares and all my determination to “just be patient” went out the window.
“You need to answer me when I ask you a question!” I bellowed.” If you don’t understand, you tell me. But you don’t just sit there and stare at the ground. It’s rude!”
Then, to drive the point home, I cruelly imitated them by sitting slumped over in my chair. I know, it was horribly mean, unprofessional and a wee bit on the dramatic side.
I just want so badly for my classes to be fun. If not for them, then for me.
But now I’m thinking that I was interpreting their silences all wrong. Because they aren’t shy. At least not outside of the classroom. I’ve spied on them while they’re waiting out in the hallway.They loudly gossip and name-call and rough house and make quite a collective racket. They engage in all of the activities shy kids would be too embarrassed to do. But then, one step into the classroom, and it’s like the volume switch has been turned off and it’s the same movie, but in silence. It’s like these loud teenagers are suddenly withdrawn, sullen robots. It’s totally bizarre.
So if it’s not shyness, then what is it?
Maybe it’s that they are extreme perfectionists. They would rather remain quiet then speak and risk saying something wrong. If so, then where is this enormous pressure to be perfect coming from? The school? Their parents?
Or maybe it’s that they are secretly really angry and resentful at their parents for making them take English lessons. Maybe it’s just a matter of them not wanting to be there. Their silence is an act of rebellion. Let’s see how long it’ll take for the Eigo no Sensei to have another mental breakdown.
I guess the most important question: What do I do about it?
Note: I was a shy kid. So it’s not that I’m not empathetic…I am. I know how scary it can be to be called on to answer a question, especially when it’s in a language you don’t know very well. Even as an adult, it’s tough. I take Japanese classes and sometimes I feel like an idiot when I repeatedly make the same mistakes. It’s embarrassing.
But even at 14, no matter how nerve-racking it was, if a teacher called on me for an answer, I would respond. And it had nothing to do with wanting to show respect to the teacher. I supplied an answer because even if it was wrong, at least it was over quickly and the teacher would correct me and then move on. It was certainly better than offering no response at all. That would just mean that everyone would sit in an awkward silence and stare at me, waiting expectantly for me to say something.
So that’s why I’m having trouble understanding where they are coming from with this behavior. Are they hoping that if they stay quiet long enough, I’ll just quit talking to them? Do they behave the same way with their Japanese teachers?